Marvesta Shrimp Farms

by Bonnie North

There's no sign, no identifying markers of any sort. We turned off the highway just beyond Easton, crunching onto a gravelly drive threading between two clusters of huge greenhouses. One would never suppose that this was the home of one of the brightest and fastest rising stars in the local culinary arena-Maryland's own farm-raised, antibiotic-free, non-polluting, sustainably produced, Marvesta Shrimp.

If you've dined in one of the better restaurants in the Baltimore/Annapolis/Washington area within the past few months, you've probably seen the words "Marvesta Shrimp" on a menu somewhere. Astute chefs realize that many customers will be recognizing the name Marvesta, and appreciate that they are locally sourcing and serving the very best.

Yes, Marvesta has done an extraordinary job of "branding" their product, of wrestling open a unique niche in the regional seafood marketplace and solidifying their position within it. That's just one aspect of the success that three energetic young men have achieved over on the eastern shore, in the little town of Hurlock.

They've also worked hard at perfecting their production methods and their business model, all the while scaling up to meet the increasing demand for their product. But most importantly, they started with an innovative approach to modern aquaculture and they stuck with it-succeeding in raising superior shrimp that are good to eat and good for the environment.

Only a few years ago Marvesta Shrimp was just an idea being tossed around during summer breaks between three smart college guys, Scott Fritze, Guy Furman and Andy Hanzlik. Scott and Guy had been friends since their boyhood days attending the Friends School in Baltimore's Roland Park neighborhood. Guy was enrolled in science and biological engineering studies at Cornell and working on a thesis on shrimp farming. Scott introduced him to Andy Hanzlik, his classmate at Bucknell University where they were both on their way to degrees in business management.

Guy's training in the bio-sciences and engineering melded perfectly with the business smarts and marketing savvy that Andy and Scott could bring to the effort. Youthful, daring and idealistic, the three put their heads together and developed a business plan. They rounded up operating capital from "family and friends," bought land in an open field and broke ground in 2003. "It's all based upon clean and sustainable production. That's always been our focus," Scott proclaims with evident pride, and deservedly so...

They started with five large hoop-style greenhouses covering gigantic saltwater tanks about 140 feet long, 30 feet wide and almost five feet deep. Water from the Atlantic is tanked in and filtered down to below 50 microns and run through a UV filter to remove unwanted bacteria, algae, and viruses. Beyond this, they do nothing to the water; they add no hormones or antibiotics, allowing the shrimp to thrive in an environment similar to the wild. Although the exact methodology they have perfected at Marvesta is a closely kept secret, Guy, the scientist, explains the essential approach: "We use a zero-exchange aerobic heterotrophic system which maximizes usable grow-out space."

OK-Now, for the layman...this "aerobic heterotrophic system" can be described as a biologically complex, and very delicately balanced, method of intensive aquaculture. Known in the industry as ZEAH, the methodology makes it possible to operate a high capacity farm with very little, or even zero water exchange-thus no pollution.

Indeed, unlike most of the shrimp farms in existence today, which are usually situated upon (and polluting with their effluvia) mangrove swamps and shallow bays, Marvesta is entirely land-locked. The ocean water they use is occasionally replenished and constantly re-circulated, completely eliminating one of the major complaints of environmentalists against intensive aquaculture: the discharge of a high organic load into the natural ecosystem.

At Marvesta, the process of farming shrimp begins with the "post-larveals" ordered from a hatchery in Florida. According to Guy: "They're considered the best hatchery in the world because they provide an SPF-that's a 'Specific Pathogen Free'-strain of shrimp that we can raise here naturally without antibiotics. They are shipped to us live, when they are between 10 and 17 days old, by American Airlines cargo or FedEx special handling. When the baby shrimp are first brought into the tanks they are about the size of a spec of pepper."

These tiny baby shrimp are raised in juvenile tanks for 40-60 days on a high protein-based feed. When big enough, the juvenile shrimp are transferred to larger grow-out tanks.  "Each tank is stocked with shrimp in different stages of development. They're all staggered depending upon size. We produce fresh shrimp of all sizes, 365 days a year. Every 10 days or so each tank is harvested and re-stocked. It's like a complete wheel...everything moves in a circle, " Scott adds.

At one difficult point a couple years ago, demand for their shrimp threatened to outstrip their capacity for production and they were forced to step back, do a little re-thinking and expand...leading the way to the newest cluster of greenhouses. Scott points out the additions and improvements they've been able to make within the past year. "We're constantly refining our methods. We built this last summer and it produces almost five times what our first set of greenhouses could produce. We've installed a wood and refuse burner and new solar panels for heat. We're making the operation more 'green,' reducing dependencies on non-renewables and fossil fuels. It's all geared to developing greater efficiencies, conserving energy, reducing inputs..." Scott explains.

Inside, the light is bright, yet softly diffused by the translucent roofing. The air is thickly humid and all around is the swishing sound of water in the tanks. "We have to maintain at least an 80 degree temperature all year-round. This house is heated by the wood and refuse burning unit we saw just outside. It's winter and it feels nice right now, but it gets a little hot here in the summertime," Scott laughs. The tanks themselves are each covered in a thick plastic, which Andy and Guy peel back to reveal the shrimp thriving inside. These little guys are definitely quite healthy and full of spunk. They scoop some out and I try to hold one in my hands but it springs right out of my palm and shoots five feet into the air! "That tail is all muscle," Andy warns me-a little too late.

Marvesta has built its fast-growing reputation not only on the environmentally conscious methods they use, but also on the simply superior shrimp they produce, and the speed with which they can get it to their buyers.  "We can receive an order at 6am and have it delivered by mid-day," Scott tells me, "You can't get shrimp any fresher than that!"

Our area's most sophisticated chefs are understandably excited about this entirely healthy, and bona-fide "Locavore" product. A new cookbook is even being planned, featuring Marvesta shrimp in signature dishes developed by several local celebrity chefs.

Summertime grilling season is just around the corner so it's time now to bookmark And look for Marvesta Shrimp on the menu-all year round.

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