Agriculture

Iowa couple retrofits former elementary school into shrimp farm

Growing shrimp in swimming pools inside an old elementary school is not all that different from raising other livestock

Sherill and Jeff Ryan, proprietors of Sherlock Shrimp in Ridgeway, pose among several swimming pool shrimp tanks in the gymnasium of the former Ridgeway Elementary School. Orlan Love/The Gazette
Sherill and Jeff Ryan, proprietors of Sherlock Shrimp in Ridgeway, pose among several swimming pool shrimp tanks in the gymnasium of the former Ridgeway Elementary School. Orlan Love/The Gazette
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RIDGEWAY — Growing shrimp in swimming pools inside an old elementary school is not all that different from raising other livestock, according to Jeff Ryan, who attended kindergarten through sixth grade in the same building where he and his wife, Sherill, are farming shrimp.

“They have to be cared for seven days a week. You’re carefully monitoring health. You’re controlling their environment. You’re tracking rate of gain,” said Ryan, who operates Sherlock Shrimp with his wife and a 1,500-acre grain, hay and cattle farm with his brother Roger.

Sherill Ryan put aside a 20-year nursing career at the Mayo Clinic to take the reins of the new company that began selling shrimp June 17.

“I wanted to do something different, and this fits the bill,” she said.

The Ryans are employing an innovative aquaculture technique called biofloc in which bacteria feed on shrimp excrement and actually convert some of it to food for the shrimp.

That keeps the water clean and saves on food costs, Jeff Ryan said.

“It’s a zero-exchange system for water. We have to add only what we lose through evaporation,” said operations manager Josh Meyer of Calmar, a recent University of Northern Iowa graduate with a degree in biology.

Frequent water testing ensures that critical factors such as water temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen and nutrient and waste levels remain in the proper balance, Sherill Ryan said.

Early in their learning curve, Sherill Ryan said they “killed off 12 tanks of shrimp.”

“It was a horrible experience but a valuable lesson,” she said.

The Ridgeway school, which closed in 2008, was purchased in 2010 by the city, which sold it to the Ryans last year.

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It houses about 40 regular aboveground swimming pools fitted with heaters to maintain a constant 85-degree water temperature and aerators to ensure adequate oxygen.

About every three weeks, the Ryans receive a FedEx shipment from the Florida Keys of larval shrimp, each about the size of the head of a pin. It takes about four months to raise the tiny shrimp to market size — about 4 inches long, about 25 per pound.

So far the Ryans have sold almost all of their shrimp, at $20 per pound, to customers walking into their retail outlet from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. They’ve sold the remainder to local restaurants.

“Demand has stayed ahead of supply, so we’ve not had to go looking for customers,” Jeff Ryan said.

A big part of their product’s appeal, Sherill Ryan said, is that “people want to know where their food comes from.”

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