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Marketing shrimp’s not such a small business for this Hoosier

WALKERTON, Ind. — Shrimp served here is almost always from some overseas country like Thailand or Indonesia – but an aqua farm in northern Indiana also contributes to satisfying the world’s craving for the delicacy.

According to industry experts, shrimp farming has also emerged in recent years in other states including Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, because of growth in demand for locally produced food.

Jason and Kristen Troike knew nothing about raising shrimp until 2014, when they started Hoosier Shrimp Farm at 7855 E. 775 North outside Walkerton, between Hamlet and Koontz Lake in Starke County. Their shrimp goes straight from salt-water tanks to the mouths of customers willing to clean them first.

Instructions on cleaning and cooking are given to customers before leaving with their iced package of fresh-as-can-be shrimp. “They take them home and enjoy a fresh product of shrimp they can’t get in Indiana, normally,” Jason Troike said.

The Troikes were living outside Indianapolis with jobs in the private sector when they had a hankering to move back to this part of the state to raise their now 5-year-old son, Jackson, in the country. Their daughter, Zoe, was just born in March.

Jason’s parents, Ed and Debbie Troike, are longtime grain farmers in Hamlet. Originally, he said he planned to rejoin the family farm but horrible allergies he developed to corn and soybeans forced him to find some other way to make a living once he was ready to go back home.

He wanted to get back into farming and thought about raising tilapia or some other fish for consumption, but chose shrimp after learning about its high demand.

“Since it’s the No. 1 seafood product the world, we decided to give that a shot,” Troike said.

Hoosier Shrimp Farm has 16 tanks, each holding about 4,000 shrimp in 5,000 gallons of saltwater. Troike said the shrimp are about the size of an eyelash when they’re delivered overnight 40,000 at a time from a hatchery in Florida.

Three to four months later, the shrimp are ready to be dipped out of production tanks, wrapped in ice and placed into the hands of buyers at the farm’s retail market. The store is open to the public Fridays from 2-6 p.m. (CST) and Saturdays from 1-4 p.m.; it is open the rest of the week by appointment only.

Hoosier Shrimp Farm is open to schools and other groups like the FFA for tours.

Troike sells shrimp at the Farmer’s Market in downtown La Porte, too, where he’s been a vendor for the past three years. The Troikes also supply local restaurants, but on a much more limited scale.

Troike said he doesn’t have the capacity yet to guarantee large shipments consistently to a greater number of restaurants, but the goal is to eventually do just that and offer shrimp wholesale.

Crunching numbers

He had about $450,000 in startup costs, with much of the expense being construction of his 210-by-48-foot building. The cost of the tanks and other equipment came to about $100,000.

“It’s costly, for sure,” Troike noted.

He wasn’t specifically thinking about shrimp farming until he came across it while searching on the internet for areas of agriculture that might be a good option for him. Learning how to raise shrimp wasn’t a monumental task, either, once he discovered in his online search that there was a company in Indiana teaching people how to do it.

For one year, RDM Aquaculture by Lafayette – for a $10,000 fee – helped set up his farm and taught him all about the practice. The company also provided the baby shrimp for him to raise, then he found another nursery before their contracted services expired.

Troike said he and Kristen can run the operation with help from his mother without any other employees. It wasn’t unusual for them to put in 10- to 12-hour days getting everything up and running the first year.

“It’s like dairy farming. You have to be there twice a day to feed them and be there every single day,” he explained. Now, his work schedule varies anywhere from 3-8 hours a day, and his longer days are when he has more time-consuming chores to do, such as cleaning the tanks.

Troike said the only land required is for the building, since the entire operation is under roof. On about a four-acre garden, Hoosier Shrimp Farm also grows sweet corn, potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, squash, zucchini and green beans. Pumpkins, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries come from a separate garden at the farm, which also offers brown eggs from the 25 or so chickens on the grounds.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, 55 percent of shrimp produced worldwide is farmed and most of it comes from China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil, Ecuador and Bangladesh. The United States, Europe and Japan are the biggest importers.

Troike said his shrimp might be a bit more expensive, but from being raised in a climate-controlled environment, they have a firmer texture and taste sweeter than what’s typically sold commercially. His shrimp are also not injected to look plumper like some of the mass-produced kind, he said.

Some of his customers drive in from distant places like Warsaw and Valparaiso. “People come all of the time from Michigan,” he added.

Hoosier Shrimp Farm will be featured during this year’s Indiana State Fair, where a different farmer from Indiana is featured each day from August 3-19.

Indiana has only about a half-dozen or so shrimp farms and because domestic production is so rare compared many other countries, Troike said he gets strange looks sometimes when people learn what he does for a living.

“They’re surprised because it’s just not something you think of Indiana,” he mused.

The United States is nowhere near close to the top in terms of worldwide shrimp production. But, in total seafood production, the nation ranks fifth with China, which is far and away the leader at 12 times the U.S production, according to Islandsbanki Research.

Alaska is the top seafood-producing state, churning out nearly six times the amount of Louisiana, the second-highest seafood producer in the country. Washington, Virginia and Mississippi follow in terms of overall seafood production.