Fledgling shrimp industry launches Minn. center

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BALATON, Minn. — A crowd of more than 400 community well-wishers gathered Aug. 22 for what promoters bill as the launch and celebration of a new livestock industry — shrimp — that could make southwest Minnesota the center of a surf-on-the-turf revolution.

Entrepreneur leaders of trū® Shrimp Company commissioned their Balaton Bay Reef Training and Innovation Center. The 12,000-square-foot building has been under construction for 11 months and will start growing shrimp this September.

It is a multi-million-dollar enterprise, but the privately held company isn't specific about that.

Tour-goers saw the inside of "Balaton Bay Reef," a cavernous research and training facility, attached its company headquarters. The facility is a scaled-up model of the company's innovative shrimp production system — a concrete "box" that is 60 feet wide, 200 feet long and 40 feet tall. It stands behind the company's research center which is part of a refurbished former high school building in a town of 800.

Tall 'tidal basins'

Balaton Bay Reef is dominated by series of shallow large steel trays ("tidal basins") stacked eight high, equipped with sophisticated water recycling and automatic feeding systems. The shrimp will grow in saltwater from post-larvae (mosquito size) to full-grown at various market sizes.

The system is being designed for intense water recycling and environmental friendliness, and food cleanliness that doesn't require antibiotic treatments for water used in many of the pond-style production facilities worldwide, where the bulk of shrimp are produced.

"It's going to be a training center for our employees, going to continue proving and improving our concept, and ... preparing the staff to run the Luverne (Minn.) Bay Harbor and subsequent harbors to come," said Jon Knochenmus, president emeritus.

Luverne Bay Harbor will be the first of what is expected to be as many as 40 similar production "harbors" across the country. The Luverne site will start construction by fall or early next year and could be completed in about a year. That site will include a hatchery and water engineering site and will be built in "hemispheres."

Previously, the company has said the Luverne system will cost about $54 million, would employ roughly 330 people and generate over $14 million in payroll.

Michael Ziebell, the president and chief executive officer called the building "the next step in producing shrimp in shallow water" in the Upper Midwest.

Scaling upward

Jon Knochenmus, president emeritus and board member, appeared with his wife, Niter, whose family had started the Ralco Nutrition Inc., a livestock agricultural products company based in nearby Marshall. At the culmination point in the ceremony, Niter broke a sacrificial bottle of champagne against the wall to mark the occasion, much as a seagoing ship would be christened.

Brian Knochenmus, Jon's son and current Ralco president, said the goal is to scale up the system to someday viably supply a large portion of the shrimp consumption in the U.S. That's 1.9 billion pounds a year, largely from foreign sources.

The Luverne production facility will cover nine acres — the size of nine football fields, roughly — on 67 acres, said Robert Gervais, senior director of operations. The Balaton site has a quarter-mile of stacked tidal basins, while the Luverne facility will have 29 miles of basins.

Bruce Paterson, chief technical officer, leads the research and technical group and said the business of breeding, hatching, raising and processing shrimp has been done for "decades." The new company will do all of that, but is changing most of the methods.

The key difference is that instead of using ocean saltwater, this system makes its own to mimic seawater. The company brings in disease-free breeding shrimp with has less disease pressure and can be more productive than outdoor pond production for which antibiotics often must be applied to the water to fend off diseases.

The company allowed no photos but offered basic information for neighbors and partners in the building of the plant, and allowed attendees to ask questions but warned that information is confidential, even though many of the processes are covered by patents. The building includes viewing windows for school groups, customers and other visitors.