Part of the Plan
However, if asked, this veteran shrimp farmer will openly admit that his ultimate goal is not to sell his products at local farmers’ markets but to help create a new aquaculture industry in Michigan that ultimately has the ability to turn our economy around.
Originally from Adrian, Allen graduated from the University of Michigan in 1973 with a degree in fisheries. After purchasing a 70-foot sailboat and running charters in the Galapagos Islands, Allen’s travels landed him in Ecuador in 1976, where he began learning the basics of shrimp farming. His assistance in research, promotion and development led to the industry’s rapid growth in the area. Allen then proceeded to Belize where he continued with a 2,000-acre fish farm, eventually establishing a successful industry there are well.
In 1990 Allen returned to the United States with his family in order for his children to attend school. Once back Allen was faced with a newfound challenge.
“I never had a job in the United States; I did not know what to do,” he says. “I needed to figure out how to farm shrimp here because it was really the only thing I knew how to do.”
With over 30 years of shrimp farming experience under his belt, Allen got busy trying to develop ways to grow shrimp indoors, in Michigan—something no one had ever succeeded at before. Allen focused on two main factors: first, the biology of the process, such as how to actually grow the shrimp indoors; and second, the construction, how to build a facility capable of withstanding the necessary environment. By 2000 Allen had successfully created the first indoor shrimp farm in Michigan. Ultimately capable of producing shrimp at a commercial operation level, he currently grows 300 to 400 pounds of shrimp a week.
According to Allen, the thing that differentiates his system and philosophy from that of others is its competitive potential.
“The system I developed is the only [indoor system] I know in the world that is capable of competing on a commodity level. We can compete with any country in the world with farming shrimp right here in Michigan. And that has really been my goal,” he says. “My goal is to develop a new industry.”
A new aquaculture industry right here in Michigan. Allen went on to explain that other systems throughout the country, though capable of producing shrimp, cannot currently compete on a commodity level and must sell their product into a niche market, as niche market prices ensure their survival due to high production costs.
Allen admits The Shrimp Farm Market, where he sells medium, large and jumbo shrimp ranging from $9 a pound to $14 a pound, and value-added products such as shrimp burgers, ceviche, shrimp salad and shrimp spread, is merely a component in his plan to promote and establish Michigan’s aquaculture industry. Allen also participates in the Meridian Farmers’ Market and the West Side Farmers’ Market in Ann Arbor, all of which he said has helped develop a loyal group of regular customers. It is such close interaction that has helped Allen better understand who his customers are, what products they want, and how much they are willing to pay. This type of market research will allow Allen to better expand to a commercial-sized operation.
“The whole eat local, produce local is really a huge thing, and the effort that I try to do is promote locally grown shrimp as being shrimp grown in the United States versus imported shrimp, not just grown in Okemos or in Michigan, but grown in the United States. If we take that mentality and get people wrapped around their minds that it is a locally produced product as long as it is produced here in the United States, I think that will help.”
Another thing Allen says would help is funding, as he is currently trying to raise $10 million to begin his commercial enterprise in Michigan. Allen has been communicating with both the Michigan Economic Development Center and the Michigan Department of Agriculture about possible efforts to advance aquaculture in the state and put in place incentives that will encourage venture capitalists to invest in this new industry.
According to Allen, a new aquaculture industry has a vast potential to positively impact both Michigan’s and the nation’s economy. Currently 90 percent of the shrimp in the United States is imported, an estimated 1.4 billion pounds of shrimp a year.
“We are talking a billions-of-dollars industry. It is not a little thing. It is a big thing for the state of Michigan and for the United States in general, but we have to take that first step.”
The Shrimp Farm Market
Russ Allen, Owner, President
3450 Meridian Road