Walking into Paul and Tracy Cocchio’s barn on a cold Ontario morning feels like a visit to the tropics, and rightly so, because the livestock the Cocchios are raising originate in decidedly warmer parts of the world. You might say the barn is a kind of greenhouse for the animal side of agriculture, with the couple being Ontario’s first shrimp farmers.
It’s probably also the first time any of us have read the words shrimp and farm in the same sentence.
Aptly named, Ontario’s First Shrimp Farm is the first commercial shrimp operation in the province, and it just celebrated its very first harvest in January. But it was a celebration that had been a long time coming, with the Cocchio’s now in their fifth year of pioneering a new Canadian agricultural sector.
Located in Campbellford, two hours east of Toronto, Paul and Tracy weren’t always quite so unique. In fact, they fit right in with all the neighbours back in 1991, when they purchased the family dairy farm.
Paul’s father had been a true “cow-man” and had built up the family farm from scratch. But Paul was more attached to the idea of being a farmer than he was to the idea of milking every day, and he soon started to consider a big change.
“We thought hog farming was the way to go,” Paul says and then laughs.
Tracy recalls it with a small shake of her head too: “I was looking forward to cooking our own pork chops.”
Paul remembers how they had considered making their move for quite some time before finally deciding. Tracy says it was really when the neighbouring parcel of land came up for sale, that it seemed the stars were aligning in their favour.
They purchased it and built three new barns there in 1998. They tried to juggle the dairy and pork businesses for the first six months, but they soon got a taste of the lifestyle hog farming offered.
It wasn’t long after that, however, that it became obvious luck hadn’t been with them after all.
“I forget what year the price fell apart exactly, but we decided we were done with hogs,” Paul said flatly. Cash-cropping mercifully proved more profitable through the early 2000s but the problem of what to do with the barns starred him in the face.
“The floors wouldn’t hold cattle, we tried a few other things but they wouldn’t work either,” Paul admits.
When they finally heard about retrofitting for aquaculture, they’d become open to the idea of pencilling out just about anything. “They’re changing barns in Indiana, mostly chicken barns, and they’re growing shrimp in them,” Paul told Tracy.
After touring operations in Maryland and Indiana, they finally discovered an arrangement they could envision in their own barns. “We had to pull all the slotted floors out, and the posts and the beams, have new concrete walls put in, and then there was getting the linings in,” Paul says.
Even with the considerable help and guidance they had from their mentor, a shrimp farmer based in Indiana who’s just a few more years ahead of the Cocchios himself, they say the transition has been challenging to navigate.
In fact, it was the mentor was the one who finally nixed their idea to seal the concrete dividing walls instead of accepting the added cost of shipping up liners from an American supplier. “We can pick up the phone and call him anytime,” Paul says gratefully, acknowledging that there have been many times when they needed a sounding board.
The red tape involved in their undertaking has seemed incredibly excessive. To begin with, it took three years just to get the government to list “Pacific White Shrimp” as a species to be grown in Ontario. Then they had to conduct a lengthy study that proved the salt water species could not survive outside of the barn, for which, Tracy admits, they leaned heavily on the provincial aquaculture specialist, Steve Naylor.
Then it took another year to get all the heating, aeration, and filtration equipment shipped across the border, in addition to ensuring they would also be permitted to ship up fish food.
“We tried all over Canada to get somebody to make us feed, but we don’t use enough for them to want to do it,” Paul explains. “We were stressed out thinking ‘are we going to get feed or not?’” Tracy adds.
Eventually, they learned they didn’t even need a permit to import the food they were looking for.
Tracy says it was a good day when the baby shrimp finally arrived from Florida. They come in batches of 11,000 since each one is just the size of an eyelash when they arrive.
Their son, Brad, joins as we talk about the shipment, and then he’s quick to pull out his phone and show me pictures of the shrimp at four-months-old, nearly ready for harvest.
Educated as a large equipment mechanic but working just down the road at the local cheese factory, Brad details the type of pellets being fed at each life stage, and he talks of the critical levels of ammonia, nitrites, and oxygen that they test for three times daily, and how algae breaks down feed for the shrimp to consume.
There’s clearly a lot of science and technology to shrimp farming, but since they’ve only now worked up to half the facility’s 16-tank, 208,000-gallon capacity, Paul and Tracy can manage the four to five hours of work involved in feedings and water sampling. But you’d never know Brad wasn’t there fulltime himself, and Tracy says that Brad is the one who makes climbing into murky pools of creepy-crawly creatures fun.
“Someday, he’ll hopefully take over and we can retire,” Tracy muses, “but I don’t know when that’s going to be.” Paul says his wife doesn’t give herself due justice in describing how she’s plunged into the venture. “She was the one to actually reach in and pick one shrimp up,” he chuckles, “Brad and I weren’t going to touch them!”
All three agree that it’s a much different way of raising livestock. One of the best parts is that the relationship between the algae and the shrimp, coupled with the need to recycle water for nutrient and heat retention purposes, means there is very little waste to handle. But on the other hand, it’s nerve-wracking for all of them that the clay-based feed and algae makes it impossible to see the shrimp in the bottom of the holding tanks.
“You can’t see them, so you don’t KNOW what’s happening,” says Paul. “Our first crop was terrible, the second one will be much better, and the third one looks like, hopefully, we’re starting to get on to the right track.”
But Paul says they’ve been assured this is just the nature of the business. The family tells me that when they shared their first harvest counts with Steve Naylor, he congratulated them for being honest, noting that if their first report had been any better, he would have suspected them of plumping up their results.
Further advice from Indiana was that it will be a full year before their water fully stabilizes and, until that happens, they won’t get a truly representative crop. Eventually, they tell me, they’ll be able to produce 800 lbs. of shrimp on a weekly basis, without even touching the two remaining empty barns. Not that they have any intention of retrofitting another building anytime soon. After five years, the Cocchios insist they are beyond ready to start generating a return on all their investing. Brad says the local food movement is creating an extremely favourable market. “There’s nowhere to get fresh shrimp, it’s all imported,” he says.
Paul says before they ever spent a dollar on the barn, they conducted market research in the food retail business and received enthusiastic responses from potential buyers.
During the fall prior to their first harvest, they had already received two inquiries from large food suppliers and word of their first harvest has spread rapidly through the local community, resulting in regular calls and emails to the family about where people can go to start buying their shrimp.
“Let me put it this way,” Paul offers, “no one said ‘no.’”