Imagine you’re a grower but not able to even see the fruits of your labor until the day you harvest.
Unlike the cultivation of grain crops or vegetables, Marc and Michele Gradel are relatively unsure if their efforts have paid off until Marc drains the ponds at his Martin farm. If it’s been a favorable growing season, the waters will recede to a certain level and then what was a placid pond resembles a boiling pan of water as thousands of shrimp are roused from their bottom-dwelling existence.
In their third year of operating Sweetwater Farms, 7024 State Route 2, the Gradels are still learning the finer points of shrimp farming - an endeavor that Michele describes as a combination of hard work and fun.
“During the season we can’t really see them,” Michele said. “We go out every night with a flashlight and feed them and can see their eyes but we don’t really know how many we have until we harvest them. It’s kind of nerve wracking.”
The three ponds at Sweetwater Farms each cover about a half acre or so. The deep ends range from five to seven feet.
The nearby Lake Erie marshes offer an advantage, says Michele, by naturally filtering the pond water.
Freshwater shrimp have a sweeter taste than those grown in saltwater, she said, and have little or no iodine. The growing season coincides roughly with the summer months. The Gradels place juvenile shrimp in the ponds in early June and harvest them by mid-September.
Ideally, the water temperature should be about 80 degrees. This summer was cool enough to affect the growth of the juveniles.
“We had really cool weather this summer,” Michele said. “The year before last it was warmer and we had some real giants in there. People out here were calling them Bono lobster.”
“We put in 2,800 juvenile shrimp,” Michele said. “What we get out always varies. We don’t know about the weather or how many predators are going to get into the pond – the birds, snakes and frogs. In that way, it’s like any other crop, it varies with the weather year by year.”
During a recent sale, the Gradels drained two ponds and harvested a little more than 300 pounds.
A harvest and sale of the third pond’s bounty was scheduled for Sept. 14.
The harvest is when the fun begins as friends and family stop by to help.
“We must have 30 or so people rolling around in the mud,” Michele said, adding she’d like to expand the event and invite area fruit and vegetable growers to have stands on site.
“We’re getting better at harvesting, weighing and washing and bagging them,” Michele said. “We have wonderful friends and family to help.”
This year’s harvest drew customers from throughout Northwest Ohio as well as passersby from Detroit and Cleveland.
Raymond Morse, a family friend, is a regular at the harvests. “It’s really cool to see how Marc has done this,” he said.
Research on the temperate culture of freshwater shrimp in the U.S. began at Kentucky State University around 1990, according to the aquaculture program at the Ohio State University. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources restricted their culture in the state until 2000. A year later, several producers in Ohio, most in southern counties, raised their first crops of freshwater shrimp.
Bob Calala, president of the Ohio Aquaculture Association, estimates there are now about 35 freshwater shrimp growers in Ohio.
Mike Wilkerson, of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, said the state requires permits for shrimp farms like those operated by the Gradels. Owners must file records annually of what they buy and sell.
The Gradels also raise grain crops.
“It’s not a big profit yet,” Michele said of the shrimp venture.