EL PASO — At the Steiner Farm in rural El Paso, you can buy raw honey and, de-pending on the season, there may be unique plants and produce for sale as well. But one offering, advertised on a sign in front of the farm, might cause motorists to do a double-take — fresh saltwater shrimp.
“We try to specialize in the odd and hard to find,” said Dave Steiner, who operates the farm with his wife, Sandy, and seven children ages 2 to 14.
Fresh saltwater shrimp are definitely hard to find in Central Illinois. While there are many shrimp farms across the country, Steiner estimates fewer than 10 raise shrimp in the manner he does.
While many shrimp farms use outdoor ponds, Steiner Farm uses a self-contained indoor growing system. Located behind the family’s home, a machine shed containing four 18-foot swimming pools with special circulating pumps is home to thousands of growing shrimp, which come from a hatchery in Florida.
“You don’t really know what you are getting into,” said Steiner, adding he didn’t anticipate some of the challenges associated with the novel system.
The science of raising shrimp is ever-changing, and since Steiner began last April, the recommended number of shrimp per tank, as well as tank size, are two things that have changed.
“It’s part of the nature of being so new,” Steiner said.
Production problems have ranged from simple — tank covers had to be lowered after shrimp jumped out of the tanks — to more complex problems with water quality and temperature.
“The things we learn are part of it,” Steiner said. “I go through cycles where I am frustrated with the challenges and then we move forward.”
While raising shrimp hasn’t been as easy as he anticipated, finding customers hasn’t been a problem. The sign in front of the farm, as well as word-of-mouth, has been enough to attract sales. The shrimp is $18 per pound.
Besides being hormone- and antibiotic-free, the shrimp are free of pollutants found in seawater. “You don’t have to worry about an oil spill,” Steiner said.
The difference in taste is harder to describe. “It’s like anything fresh,” Steiner said.
While the family has a tent at a local summer farmers market, Steiner is hoping to keep the sales on the farm.
Those on-farm sales benefit the community, as well as the Steiners, said Brian Lambert, program coordinator for local food systems and small farms for the University of Illinois Extension.
“Anytime there is traffic into the rural areas, it can benefit other businesses in nearby towns as well as other farm stands,” Lambert said.
For the Steiner family, there has been an added benefit — the opportunity to work together.
On Saturday mornings the three oldest boys can be found waiting on customers. They are also able to develop their individual talents through their work.
Samuel Steiner, 14, maintains the farm’s website, while Aaron, 13, “builds stuff,” and Silas, 10, designed the farm’s logo.
While waiting on customers is a favorite for Silas, he also enjoys another benefit of raising shrimp. “I like eating them.”
While the family has already discussed expanding into other ventures, Dave Steiner’s current goal is clear: Production issues need to be solved, so he can harvest more pounds of shrimp per tank.
“We need to do what we are doing now, but better,” Steiner said.
Steiner’s dream goes beyond breaking even, and others have proven that shrimp farming can be a profitable business.
“There could be no end to this if our patience lasts that long,” Steiner said. “Still, the benefits for our family so far have been more than I would have predicted.”