"Kansas City shrimp."
No, that’s not the setup for a punchline about living in a landlocked state. That’s the tagline for Mitch and Julie Schieber’s shrimp farm, KC Shrimp Co., which they founded in 2015 at their home in Oak Grove, Missouri.
The Schiebers didn’t expect to find themselves in the shrimp business. They have their daughter, Caedran, and one of her school assignments to thank for the new venture.
“She was in fifth grade, and she had a list of science project ideas,” Mitch says, “and she was like, ‘Daddy, I want to do this one!’ And it was growing brine shrimp.” He laughs: “It didn’t look like one of the easier ones.”
Working with their daughter, now 13, on the science project got the Schiebers thinking about growing shrimp for their family. Today, in a large, nondescript garagelike building just a few yards away from the family’s two-story home, 10 grow-out tanks – 14-foot diameter outdoor swimming pools – keep KC Shrimp Co.’s farm afloat. Each tank contains between 3,000 and 3,500 shrimp, all in various stages of maturation.
The youngest shrimp are just a few months old, their tiny, translucent bodies each about an inch long. Mitch pulls back the tarp and scoops out a handful with a net; they act more like crickets than sea creatures. The shrimp leapfrog around the surface of the water and a few pop out of the net like kernels of popcorn escaping the bowl.
The older, larger shrimp in the other tanks bounce even higher.
At five and six months old, these are closer to being ready to sell to restaurants. The shrimp come in 30- and 20-count sizes – or what the average diner might recognize as “large” and “jumbo.” (The count is the number of shrimp you get per pound; the fewer shrimp per pound, the bigger and more expensive they tend to be.)
KC Shrimp Co. is a saltwater shrimp farm. This aspect is an integral part of the Schiebers’s operation, one that they’re very proud of – and they’ve accomplished it through science.
The couple started by making saltwater using a product called Instant Ocean, a synthetic sea salt found at most pet stores.
On a smaller scale, Instant Ocean is used in saltwater aquariums, and the Schiebers buy it in bulk. Once it’s been added to the water in the tanks, it’s there forever. Whenever the Schiebers clean or harvest shrimp, they pump out the water from one pool into a holding tank, then pump it back in.
This method is part of their operation’s biofloc system, where a probiotic bacteria is grown in the water to consume the shrimp’s waste (as opposed to an outdoor pond, which would have algae). The byproduct of that activity is floc, the levels of which the Schiebers control in their settling tanks.
“We usually just say ‘good bacteria’ so people can understand.” Julie says. “It doesn’t harm the shrimp or people. The probiotic bacteria we’re growing is living in the water, serving a vital purpose in our system. It’s not on the shrimp when they’re taken out of the tank, and it’s not the same type of bacteria that grows on processed, frozen food. And the great thing about our system is that we don’t have wastewater, and very little waste. It’s incredibly sustainable and environmentally friendly.”
The Schiebers’s system is modeled after the biofloc model at RDM Aquaculture in Fowler, Indiana, a shrimp farm and nursery where Mitch makes a monthly trek to pick up 10,500 post-larvae shrimp. The decision to grow their shrimp in saltwater over freshwater was largely due to the yield of the harvest, the Schiebers say.
“We never really considered growing freshwater shrimp,” Julie says. “People grow freshwater shrimp in outdoor ponds in Missouri, but you only get one crop per year, and it’s risky, because it’s outside and weather is unpredictable. Those outdoor farms have to be careful, because if you harvest after cold weather, you might not end up with a big yield.”
“It goes back to the species, too,” Mitch adds. “We’re growing Pacific White [shrimp], and they’re not very aggressive toward each other, so you can grow them in a tank indoors. And because of the way we operate, we have a constant supply of shrimp ready each month.”
It’s humid in the shrimp room, bordering on swampy. The Schiebers keep the thermostat right around 80ºF, but for the most part, the building is heated from the residual water coming off of the tanks.
“The tanks fluctuate from 79°F to 84°F,” Mitch says. “It’s a good temperature for the operation. The warmer the water, the more active the shrimp are going to be, and they’ll eat more and grow faster.”
The tricky part, he says, is finding the sweet spot. The more active the shrimp are, the more waste they produce, which can clog the oxygen in the water. The probiotic bacteria in the water needs oxygen to grow, and the bacteria is essential for the water’s health.
“If I get low oxygen levels, I start getting death,” Mitch says. “Too much oxygen, and the shrimp won’t mature properly. It’s a balancing act. When we were just learning how to raise these things, it was explained to us that it was like walking a tightrope – and now I know what that means.”
Julie jokes that running a shrimp farm is like being in a high school science lab day after day. Each morning, the Schiebers are testing the water for floc levels, oxygen levels, temperature, salinity and pH. These tests tell them if they’re feeding the shrimp too much or too little, as well as how the probiotic bacteria is doing.
“We’re taking care of the water and the bacteria, and the shrimp take care of themselves,” Mitch says. “That’s pretty much how we look at it. We do our best to keep the water stable, and the shrimp will be fine. They’ll be happy.”
The Schiebers credit their daughter with the inspiration for the company, but for Mitch, the timing was right. He grew up in Wellington, Missouri, on a farm with row crops and cattle, and has made his career in the remodeling business.
“KC Shrimp Co. wasn’t so much getting back to livestock as it was me wanting to get out of remodeling,” Mitch says. “With the farming background, it appealed to me.”
The hours of shrimp farming made sense for the Schiebers. Mitch still owns his remodeling business and Julie works part-time, so when they were formulating their business plan, the requisite three-hours-a-day of shrimp maintenance sounded manageable.
“When we were looking into it, it was fascinating, this idea of growing seafood indoors,” Julie says. “Using a net and taking home live shrimp to have for dinner gives you a whole different product than frozen shrimp. [We] started reading about where the shrimp that’s in the grocery stores actually comes from, and it’s not good.”
Ninety to 95 percent of the raw shrimp that comes into the U.S. is imported from farms in Asian countries. Often, to combat the pollution that frequently occurs in the ponds and tanks at fish and seafood farms, shrimp are given antibiotics. The Schiebers don’t use growth hormones or antibiotics on their shrimp. They order a specially designed shrimp food from a Pennsylvania feed company called Ziegler. A glance at the label will tell you that the feed contains a high-protein blend of soy meal, fish oil and cornmeal – all recognizable ingredients.
“It’s the best we can give them,” Mitch says. “It’s supposed to mimic what they’d eat in the ocean. The cool thing about our water is how strictly we control it, so our shrimp aren’t facing any of the contaminants that ocean shrimp would have. They’re the cleanest shrimp you can get.”
Local chefs tend to agree with the Schiebers. The company regularly supplies shrimp to nine Kansas City area restaurants: The Rieger, Novel, Room 39 Mission Farms and Room 39 Midtown, Brewery Emperial, Webster House, The Farmhouse, Freshwater and Justus Drugstore. These restaurants make up the majority of KC Shrimp Co.’s business.
“Shrimp is one of the most consumed and sought-after seafoods for Americans, and we couldn’t feature it on the menu because so much of it isn’t sustainable and you can’t source it responsibly,” says Ryan Brazeal, chef-owner of Novel. “We’d always wanted to use shrimp, and when the opportunity came along, it was exactly what we’d been waiting for. I just never thought it would actually happen.”
After placing his first order with KC Shrimp Co. and falling in love with the sustainable and local product, Brazeal suggested that the Schiebers contact a handful of other area restaurant owners. Howard Hanna, the chef and co-owner of The Rieger, was among them.
“To have a local option for shrimp is really exciting,” Hanna says. “I think we’re on our third or fourth menu that we’ve been using them. We’ve already done four or five different dishes with the shrimp. While other shellfish like oysters can still arrive live and ship from far away, shrimp is highly perishable, and typically, the only shrimp you see in Kansas City is frozen shrimp. KC Shrimp Co. actually delivers them to us live, which is amazing. It’s like getting coast shrimp.”
Usually the Schiebers will spend all day Tuesday and Thursday harvesting shrimp, and Julie will do deliveries both days, as well. Although selling to restaurants was never really part of the plan, the Schiebers feel fortunate for the local support.
“We thought we’d be selling to people that wanted shrimp for dinner,” Julie says. “We thought we’d be at a market once a week or something. We had no idea we’d be selling to restaurants. The original plan was to sell to the public, but when Ryan Brazeal and Howard Hanna called, we realized that it made a lot more sense for our business to harvest the shrimp weekly and deliver it all on one day to the area restaurants, rather than just meeting a person here and there to deliver one pound of shrimp.”
The relationship between KC Shrimp Co. and local restaurants is kismet. For chefs like Brazeal and Hanna, it’s not just about capitalizing on a rare raw product (at least in the Midwest) – it’s about getting access to a superior one.
“These shrimp have such a clean flavor,” Brazeal says. “They don’t have any sort of fishy smell, and they don’t get tough when you cook them. They’re so delicate and so fresh. We’ve never served them raw, but I’ll sometimes just peel one and pop it in my mouth like sashimi. We’ve also lightly floured them and fried them with the shell on – we talk to guests about treating them as soft-shell shrimp. I’ve found that they’re so delicate that with some preparations, you can eat the whole thing.”
Hanna says the texture also sets the shrimp apart from what you’re likely to find elsewhere. “Texture-wise, the shells are quite a bit thinner than a lot of other shrimp – that’s neither good nor bad, just something I’ve noticed,” Hanna adds. “The meat is very tender. They’re very light, so gentle cooking techniques work well. Not overcooking is a big deal – that way you can show off how light and clean the flavor is.”
The shrimp are so clean and fresh, in fact, that the Schiebers – and the local chefs that work with their product – rarely, if ever, devein them. The practice of deveining, or removing the digestive tract that runs along the curve of the shrimp’s body, is done to remove waste, sand, sediment or other impurities before preparing the shrimp for consumption. Julie says that the shrimp aren’t fed the morning before they are harvested, so very little is left in the digestive tract of their shrimp.
“Deveining started in the 1920s, when they discovered mercury in ocean shrimp,” Mitch says. “Prior to that, it wasn’t common. Obviously, there’s no mercury in our water, and usually, the vein will cook out, so there’s just really not a need to devein our shrimp.”
“Besides, the best way is to cook them head-on and shell-on,” Julie adds. “It keeps the good flavor in there. We’ve purposely tried some of the larger shrimp – which have larger veins – to see if we can taste it. We really can’t. There’s nothing in our water that would make you need to devein our shrimp.”
LITTLE SHRIMP, BIG PLANS
Word has gotten out about KC Shrimp Co., and demand for the product has shot up in the almost two short years since its initial founding. In 2016, the Schiebers were selling around 30 pounds of shrimp per week; so far in 2017, they’re selling closer to 40 or 50 pounds per week. Currently, KC Shrimp Co. doesn’t distribute outside of a handful of local restaurants, and they’re not yet in any grocery stores or local markets. Occasionally – very, very occasionally – they’ll have additional shrimp available for one-off customers to come purchase.
“We’re a little surprised by the demand,” Julie says. “For us, the big goal is for KC Shrimp Co. to become full time for both of us. In order to make that happen, we need to expand. We’d like to get to a place where we can have open hours, where people can drop in and buy what they’d like.”
The first step on their way to expansion is a nursery tank. Right now, the Schiebers get their shrimp at 2 months old – with a nursery, they’ll be able to overnight them from a hatchery in Florida when the shrimp are 10 days old. By the end of July, they hope to have the nursery tank running and ready to receive post-larvae shrimp at the earliest possible stage. “They’ll be the size of an eyelash,” Julie says excitedly. “We’ll have them for six months before we start selling them, which is almost the whole process, except for breeding.”
Breeding, Julie adds, would require specialized vets and adherence to a host of additional regulations. It’s a possibility, but it’s a long way off. For now, priorities are in material expansion.
“We want to get money together to expand our facility,” Julie says. “The biggest problem we’re facing is that we’d have to relocate. The next building, we’ll do things differently – we’ll have a public restroom for tours, little things like that.”
Outside interest – that is, from folks not affiliated with restaurants – has been surprisingly strong. The Schiebers have hosted more school field trips than they can recall, in addition to the occasional Girl Scout troop. (Soon, Julie adds, KC Shrimp Co. will be a Girl Scout partner, and visiting troops will be eligible for a patch with the company logo.)
“It’s a lot of work,” Julie says, “but we’re encouraged by the results we’ve had so far. We’ve just wrapped our first full year of business, and every month, our survival rate goes up, and we hear about more people who like our product or want to use it. We feel like we’re doing it right.”
The Schiebers seem genuinely surprised and delighted by the reception to their shrimp. Some of their fondest stories are about local chefs who send them recipes and photos of how their shrimp is being used. The creativity in the local culinary community, the Schiebers say, has been one of the greatest factors in KC Shrimp Co.’s success so far.
“Something that almost everyone says to us – not just chefs, but kitchen staff – is ‘Thank you so much for what you’re doing,’” Julie says. “They say that once a month or more. It’s exciting to have people so thrilled about your product. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
KC Shrimp Co., 816.786.8486, Oak Grove, Missouri, kcshrimp.com