The well-worn gravel drive off Lombard Avenue in West Barnstable is lined with planting beds tucked in for a long winter’s nap. At the end of it, amid various pieces of farm equipment scattered about, is a long red barn with a simple “Entrance” sign spelled out in decals on the door. The sleepiness of the approach is suddenly jarred awake when you open the door. Hisses and splashes, the aroma of a working greenhouse, and the faint smell of the sea all hit you at once. No sight may be as surprising, however, as the glimpse of a true Cape Cod farmer, hard at work, in a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of Birkenstocks.
It has been ten years since the launch of Ed Osmun’s hydroponic endeavor at E&T Farms, aptly named for himself and his son, Ted. Ten years of trial and error, fits and starts, and overall growth. Over the years, Osmun has consistently tweaked and improved his closed-loop hydroponic system. Today, dozens of koi being raised in long water raceways fertilize the water that, with the help of beneficial bacteria, feed the 4000 plants growing in the adjacent greenhouse. The coconut husk and perlite medium in which the plants grow scrub the water for its return trip to the koi. It’s a system that has worked well for E&T Farms: the greens are sold to restaurants and markets and enjoyed across Cape Cod, and the fish are destined for koi ponds near and far. All in all, Ed and his wife Betty have gotten the system down.
Being a farmer, Osmun is always on the lookout for better, more efficient ways to operate. In some cases, that means refining the techniques to produce a better yield. For example, the already full greenhouse will be expanding by roughly 1000 plants. If you can’t grow out, you grow up. Ed will soon be converting the horizontal bed trays to vertical ones to increase the capacity. Another approach is to change crops altogether. The fish at E&T Farms have been almost as varied as the produce being raised. Koi, along with a few species of goldfish, have been crucial throughout the years. Ed has also tried his hand at raising tilapia for live fish markets, as well as freshwater prawn. This year, however, there is quite literally a sea change occurring at E&T. Ed and Betty are converting some of the long water raceways from freshwater to saltwater to accommodate their latest offering: the mighty shrimp!
As Ed says, “It’s been 35 years since I had a saltwater tank, and it was nowhere near 6000 gallons!” He knew exactly where to turn for assistance in getting the saltwater tanks up and running. Josh Reitsma, a Marine Program Specialist for the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant answered the call, and has been crucial to the transformation. “He’s been a big help,” Ed states.
Pacific White or White Leg shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) are now calling the waters of E&T Farms home. “We’ve worked with Ed over the years,” says Reitsma, “I’ve just been helping out with the transition, with larval cultures, with improving the feeding processes. There’s certainly a learning curve to it.” Reitsma goes on to talk about the need for a local source of shrimp. “It seems that everyone who likes seafood, likes shrimp.”
Americans consume approximately one billion pounds of them each year—a volume so vast that no matter how many Jenny’s Forrest Gump put to sea, they’d never keep up with demand. Shrimping is hard work. Fishermen on trawlers drag-netting for shrimp spend much of their time picking through the catch for the intended target. Nets small enough to catch shrimp end up taking in a lot of by-catch. Tossing the skate, dogfish, and just about everything else in the sea overboard is an exhausting and inefficient way to fill the holds of the boats. Improvements are being made in equipment to limit the by-catch, but it would be impossible for the American fleet of shrimp trawlers to keep up with demand. Reitsma said this is why 90% of the shrimp consumed on these shores is imported, and a majority comes from Southeast Asia. There’s certainly big business to be had in those tiny crustaceans.
Whether it’s salmon, oysters or any other of the nearly 60 species of finfish, shellfish and aquatic plants being farmed today, the practice of aquaculture is growing. One only needs to look as far as the Cape Cod coastline to see the many oyster grants that continue to sprout up just offshore. Shrimp are one of the most cultured species of them all, and there are a number of aquaculture operations in Mexico and Ecuador. Yet, the need for a local source is there, and E&T Farms is on its way to fulfilling at least part of that demand. In fact, there will soon be three shrimp farms in Massachusetts alone.
Raising shrimp is no small feat. E&T received their first shipment of 30,000 Pacific White shrimp this past February. At a mere centimeter long, all 30,000 fit into a single tank nursery. The shrimp arrive in high salinity water, and after 48 hours, Ed slowly brings down the salt content in the water to roughly 3.1-3.2 parts per thousand. The shrimp are an estuarial species, so they can handle the changes of salt content in the water. This is still too high, however, for the growing trays of produce in the adjoining greenhouse, so Ed had to take two of his 6000-gallon fresh water raceways offline and turn them into a saltwater home for his new stock.
The new saltwater tanks work exactly the same as the freshwater ones. Air from roof-mounted air compressors circulates and aerates the water. The air also turns the large five-foot diameter plastic drums that resemble smaller versions of old waterwheels. The drums are covered in bacteria that help to clean the water for the shrimp.
The learning didn’t stop with the tank transformations. The feeding of the shrimp was an eye opener for Ed. “I like to hand feed the fish,” he said, referring to the freshwater varieties. “With the shrimp, you’ve got to always be feeding them, cause if they run out of food, they’ll just eat each other!” Ed laughs. Thus, the installation of automatic feeders was key to keeping the shrimp (relatively) fat, happy and non-cannibalistic. The feeders serve up a helping of feed every hour all day and all night.
With the shrimp divided between the two tanks, it was time for them to eat up and develop. Each week Ed measured and weighed samples of the shrimp to track their growth. It would take approximately six months to reach market size.
This summer, after months of dining on feed and not each other, the first lot of shrimp was almost ready to be enjoyed. Before they land on the grill or in the pan, Ed purges them, starving them to clean out their digestive tracts before they’re ready to be consumed. Yet another area of trial and error: how long can you starve a shrimp before they turn to one another with thoughts of a nice scampi sauce?
Ed sent off the first samples to a few area restaurants and markets already using E&T Farms products: Orleans Public House, Viera in West Harwich and Peterson’s Market in Yarmouthport. He was looking for feedback. “I wanted the honest truth. I didn’t want ‘They’re nice’ just because we have had a longstanding relationship. That does me no good.” So? What did they say? “Hurry up and grow more,” he says with a grin.
Growing more is exactly what E&T Farms is doing. This shot at shrimp is an effort to find a more year-round product to offer. The greens are available throughout the year, but the koi have a definite seasonality to them. “After the summer, I’m stuck feeding koi all winter,” Ed says. “Sure, I can get more money for the bigger koi come springtime, but I’d rather have something that I can sell all winter.”
The current batch of shrimp will be ready at Christmas time. Unlike the greens and the koi, Ed can’t sell the shrimp at the farm right now. Due to regulations, he must sell to a wholesale dealer, but Ed’s working on that. He is talking with state officials about obtaining his own wholesale dealer license to sell the shrimp straight from the farm. Along with the proper paperwork, approved handling procedures must be strictly followed to ensure the public’s safety. Ed envisions a day soon where you’ll be able to place your shrimp order on their website or even Facebook page, and it’ll be waiting for you at E&T Farms.
Even before that day arrives, you can see the whole operation in person. Just call ahead to schedule a tour of the farm. The sights and sounds will draw your eye this way and that. The vastness of the hydroponic greenhouse and the daintiness of the baby chard and beet leaves growing in gravel-like clay-filled runs over 50 feet long will impress. The rush of air, the whoosh of water and the occasional splash from a wayward tail will certainly keep you on your toes, whether they’re in a pair of sandals or not.
85 Lombard Avenue, West Barnstable
ORLEANS PUBLIC HOUSE GRILLED LOCAL SHRIMP WITH COCONUT-CORN BISQUE
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- ½ onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon ginger, peeled and minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 stalk lemongrass, chopped
- 2 tablespoons red curry paste
- 3 cups chicken stock, heated
- ½ cup soy sauce
- 2 quarts corn kernels
- 2 6-ounce cans coconut milk
- ⅓ cup Coco Lopez (cream of coconut)
- 1 red bell pepper, small dice
- 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
- 12 E&T Farms shrimp, head on
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- salt & pepper
- In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat sesame oil. Add the onion and stir for a few minutes. Add ginger, garlic and lemongrass, stir a few minutes. Add curry paste and stir about 5 minutes until really dry.
- Add the stock, soy sauce and one quart of the corn kernels. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Purée the bisque in a blender, then strain into a clean saucepan.
- Add the coconut milk and Coco Lopez. Reheat soup to a simmer. Stir in the remaining corn, red pepper and cilantro.
- Then finish by reheating the grill. Brush shrimp with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill the shrimp for about 2 minutes on each side until just cooked through. Serve with the bisque.
Larry Egan is an Associated Press award-winning writer and commentator and host of the talk show “The Handyman Hotline” on Saturdays from 1-3 pm on 95.1 WXTK-FM. Larry lives in Marstons Mills with his wife Cori and Ziggy, the Portuguese Water Wonder Dog.