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Tony Curtis decided to become a shrimp farmer the moment he tasted his first fresh shrimp.

On a research trip with his son to the RDM Aquaculture shrimp farm in Benton County, Indiana, Curtis’s guides at RDM cooked a few shrimp fresh from the tank with a little butter and garlic. “This is from a couple of people growing up in Massachusetts, both loving seafood: This was the best seafood my son and I ever had,” Curtis says.

With Americans becoming increasingly aware of the social and environmental costs of importing their shrimp from abroad, inland shrimp farming is a growing domestic industry. Tony Curtis and his two sons, Josh and Adam, decided to bring the business to their home region of Western Massachusetts. But cost-effectively outfitting a building to create the warm aquatic conditions needed to raise shrimp required smart decision-making on energy and building systems.

A propane standby generator provides emergency backup power for the building’s lights, pumps, and boiler controls and circulators.

After contacting hundreds of farms looking for a building to lease, Curtis got a call from a farm owner in West Boylston with an empty barn that sounded ideal. It was large enough to create an economically viable shrimp farm, yet affordable enough to lease and winterize. And it didn’t yet have a cement floor, making it easier to install a new one with a radiant heating grid.

Tony Curtis says propane heating was the most cost-effective choice to keep the 90,000 gallons of water in his shrimp tanks at a constant temperature.

Following the guidance of RDM, the Indiana shrimp farmers he hired as consultants, Curtis planned to install 21 tanks of various sizes to hold and grow the shrimp. A boiler and radiant zone circulators would feed a radiant heating loop underneath all the tanks that would keep the 90,000 gallons of water at an ideal temperature of 84 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. The water must be kept warm, Curtis says, because the Pacific whiteleg shrimp he’s growing are native to the warmer waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean, near Baja California.

Several radiant heating grids installed in the cement floors will direct heat into the shrimp tanks, keeping them at an ideal 84 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

The only challenge was that the West Boylston farm did not have access to natural gas. So Curtis decided to do the same thing the team at RDM had done: Heat the facility with propane. “We feel propane will be more cost effective than heating oil,” Curtis says. Commercial boilers fueled by propane or natural gas are available with up to 98 percent efficiency — higher than oil-fueled boilers. And Curtis was able to work with his local propane provider to secure a reduced rate for higher fuel usage, a service that oil providers wouldn’t offer.

The barn needed further upgrades to maximize efficiency. To keep all of the heat from escaping, Curtis used blown-in fiberglass insulation in the walls and roof. A positive air flow system provides ventilation with pre-heated fresh air, reducing humidity, mold, and heating costs.

Commercial boilers fueled by propane or gas are available with up to 98 percent efficiency — higher than oil-fueled boilers.

Curtis is proud that his farm, known as Tasty Harvest, will provide healthier shrimp while being friendlier to the environment. While some outdoor farms can be harmful to natural habitats by taking over coastlines, marshes, or mangroves, Tasty Harvest’s shrimp will be raised in a closed-loop system. In essence, bacteria will consume all of the waste the shrimp produce, so the farm won’t release any water into the environment. Fueling the efficient heating system with propane, which produces lower carbon emissions than heating oil, adds to the business’s environmentally friendly credentials.

Curtis expects the farm to eventually produce 300 pounds of fresh shrimp per week, which customers can cook the day they’re taken from the tank. Unlike the frozen and refrozen shrimp many Americans are used to, Curtis says his shrimp will be “unbelievably fresh.” And with a little bit of butter and garlic? “Simply delectable.”

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Jeffrey Lee