On their Linn County farm, Lea and Denny Rehberg raise shrimp alongside heirloom pigs, blazing a trail for a growing regional industry.
Overnight, Styrofoam coolers of 20,000 post-larval shrimp arrive from the Florida Keys to the Rehberg family farm in Walker, Iowa. “They’re about the size of your eyelash when you get ‘em,” said Denny Rehberg, who raises the shrimp with his wife, Lea, on their small hog farm.
Two years ago, the Rehbergs converted an old farm building into an indoor aquaculture habitat. Six 12-foot swimming pools house the shrimp in salt water for up to five months as they grow. Lea runs up to 10 daily tests, monitoring the water’s salinity, temperature and oxygen levels—any deviation left unnoticed can be costly. “Shrimp don’t get sick. They’re either alive or they’re dead,” said Mr. Rehberg. “You don’t have just one or two dying, you’re having thousands of them die.”
Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States—we eat more than 1 billion pounds of the little crustaceans per year—and America’s fondness for shrimp often breeds unsavory environmental and social costs. “A lot of the shrimp coming into this country aren’t really fit to eat,” said Mr. Rehberg.
About 90 percent of shrimp in the US is imported, mostly from Southeast Asia and Latin America where sustainability and human rights experts decry waste pollution, high antibiotic use and labor rights violations. In 2014, after a six-month investigation, the Guardian revealed slave labor on boats in Thailand supplying fishmeal, which prawn farmers feed to their shrimp. The report described “horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings.”
Mr. Rehberg grew up on a hog farm about one mile away from where Rehberg Farm stands today. Lea Rehberg was raised a “city girl” in Minnesota, said Denny, but joined him on the farm when they married. Along with shrimp, the Rehbergs also raise hogs. According to Mr. Rehberg, the farm has some of the oldest genetics of the Hampshire breed in the United States. “This is truly heirloom pork,” their website boasts. The hogs are raised free of antibiotics and fed non-GMO feed made from soybeans grown on the Rehberg farm. Settlement tanks connected to the shrimp pools collect waste, which Mr. Rehberg uses to fertilize the ground where his soybeans grow. “Everything works together,” said Mr. Rehberg.
Working in the shrimp building is relaxing—the sound of the moving water, the balmy air. “It’s just like you’re down in the Bahamas,” Mr. Rehberg said. Inside the 80 degree pools, bacteria happily grow, cluster and filter nitrogenous waste in what is called a biofloc system. The shrimp feed on these bacteria clusters, increasing in size. When fully grown, the Rehbergs harvest the shrimp, which can be delivered in less than an hour.
As aquaculture methods have improved over the past decade, a handful of indoor shrimp farms have cropped up throughout the Midwest. Some of those farms now charge consulting fees—anywhere from 10 to 60 thousand dollars, said Rehberg—for farmers looking to enter the industry. Trusting his farming background, Rehberg refused to pay. “If you take everything that’s online and put a little common sense in it,” said Rehberg, “you can figure it out.”
Rehberg is careful about expanding his shrimping venture. Last year he watched as two young Iowa shrimp farms went out of business. Currently, he sells shrimp on a special order basis. But Rehberg hopes to be knocking on local restaurant doors in the near future, offering a product many Iowa diners have never before seen: shrimp harvested, delivered and plated—all on the same day.
“It’s like anything else. You start out slow, learn how to do it, and then you can always grow,” said Rehberg, adding, “It’s gonna be big.”
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Recipe: Shrimp & Grits
Developed by Ari Ariel. Serves 4
This is one of my favorite dinner party recipes. The grits can be made ahead of time, and once the ingredients for the shrimp are measured and chopped, the dish comes together in about 15 minutes. That means you can have a delicious dish and still spend most of your time with your guests. The trick to making the grits ahead of time is cooking them over a double boiler–i.e. you are going to cook the grits in a metal or heat-resistant glass bowl placed over a pot of simmering water. They’ll take a bit longer this way but you don’t have to stir them constantly, which frees you up to do other things. And once they’re done you can keep them warm, over the simmering water, for several hours.
If you prefer to make the old-fashioned stir method, cook them in a pot and then transfer them to the double boiler until you’re ready to serve.
For the grits:
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups water
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 cup stone-ground corn grits, yellow or white (or polenta)
- 4 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
- 4 ounces cream cheese
For the shrimp:
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (save the peels for shrimp stock)
- ½ large onion, chopped
- ½ green pepper, diced
- 1 celery stalk, diced
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 tsp. smoked paprika
- 1 tbsp. flour
- 2 tbsp. brandy or cognac
- 1 ½ cups shrimp stock or chicken stock
- 2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 tbsp. fresh thyme, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp. flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 tbsp. chives, chopped
For the grits:
Pour the milk and water into a pot, add the salt and bring to a simmer.
While the first pot is heating up, fill another pot about halfway with water and bring it to a simmer. You will be using it for the bottom part of a double boiler.
Put the grits in a large stainless steel or heat-resistant glass bowl.
Whisk the milk-water mixture into the grits until there are no lumps.
Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and put it on top of the pot that contains the simmering water. Be sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water, and that the water remains at a simmer. The steam from the pot is what will cook the grits.
Cook the grits this way for about 1½ hours–every 20-30 minutes, stir with a whisk or wooden spoon. Add a bit of water if the grits are too stiff or look dry. Then recover with aluminum foil.
Once the grits are cooked (smooth and no longer gritty), stir in the butter and cream cheese until both are melted and the grits are smooth and creamy.
Taste and add salt if necessary.
You can keep the grits warm over the simmering water for several hours.
For the shrimp:
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a frying pan on medium high heat.
Add the shrimp and cook them until they turn pink on one side, then remove them from the pan.
Add onion, green pepper and celery to the pan, then add salt; and lower the heat to medium, cooking until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.
Stir the tomato paste and the smoked paprika into the pan and cook another minute.
Sprinkle the flour over the pan evenly. Cook for another minute, stirring constantly.
Add the brandy, Worcestershire sauce and shrimp stock and let the liquid reduce until it is the thickness of a sauce, about 5 minutes.
Return the shrimp to the pan and let cook in the sauce until they are opaque.
Add lemon juice.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the thyme, parsley and chives.
Taste and add salt if necessary.
Ladle the grits into 4 bowls, top with shrimp and sauce, and enjoy!
To make a very simple shrimp stock:
Put all the shrimp peels in a pot and cover with about 6 cups of water.
Add a teaspoon of tomato paste and a ¼ teaspoon of salt.
Bring to a simmer.
Skim any impurities that come to top of the pot and let cook for about an hour.
Strain the stock and either use it immediately, or cool and refrigerate or freeze for future use.
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