By Billy Huntsman
A woman and her husband go out to dinner at Double Eagle in Old Mesilla. They don’t have the kind of money to do this regularly, but what the hell, it’s their 15th anniversary.
As they’re shown to their table by the maître d’, the smell of beef permeates the charmingly antiquated dining room. This restaurant has the only beef ageing room in all of New Mexico, though what this means she isn’t sure and doesn’t ask, because she doesn’t want to seem foolish.
Nor does she want to embarrass her husband, who got dressed up for tonight. He’s obviously trying to be impressive for her and she thinks this is one of the reasons why she loves him.
So they sit and soon thereafter their waiter brings them menus and introduces himself to them. They order water and promise to order something heavier with their dinners. The waiter goes and they open their menus while also commenting how the smell of the steaks other customers are cutting into at their tables is making their mouths water.
And it’s true, the woman can feel her salivary glands producing more than they normally would—certainly more than they would if they were at home and she were cooking dinner.
Despite this fact, there is something else that could make her mouth water even more, though at that precise moment she does not realize it. She is not thinking about it because they were not able to get enough time off from work this summer to make it down to Florida, where she is originally from, to visit her parents.
She is not thinking about it and hasn’t thought about it for quite a while, but the one thing that makes her salivate more than tender, aged steak is shrimp.
Then she opens her menu and on the right page there it is, listed humbly, though her eyes gravitate toward it: Tableside Shrimp Scampi Traditionale – Flambé.
Then she thinks about it. Then the memories of her childhood on the Florida coast rush in on her. Fish fries, salt water, lemon juice.
She looks up at her husband and can see he’s already decided on the rib eye. She looks more through the menu, maybe there’s something different. After all, they are at a steakhouse, and they are in New Mexico, which is not particularly known for its seafood.
She thinks about the sirloin, the New York, the chicken breast, but the shrimp cut through these thoughts and never leave the forefront of her brain.
It’s been so long, in fact she can’t remember the last time she had shrimp.
She thinks about it and is still thinking about it when the waiter comes to take their orders. Her husband orders first, getting the ribeye with a glass of some red, she’s too lost in her decision-making to notice which vintage.
Then the waiter’s head and pad turn to her.
“And for you, ma’am?”
She looks up at him with some kind of urgency, hesitates. She sees her husband looking straight at her, half-smiling in the light from their table’s candle.
Her lips move diminutively.
“The shrimp scampi.”
And because of the New Mexico Shrimp Co., the woman will be delightfully surprised.
Thirteen miles south of Las Cruces, in the tumbleweed town of Mesquite, you come to an intersection with a yellow-flashing light. The north- and southbound lanes have the right-of-way, while the east- and westbound lanes have STOP signs.
Turn east over the train tracks and continue until you reach the lopsided SEQUOIA street sign. Turn left and you’ll quickly find yourself beside a picturesque brick and wrought-iron gate, which is out of place among the dust and scrap metal and trucking depot farther up the road and the splintered wooden sign with ACRES FOR SALE spray-painted in black across its face behind you.
The gate encloses a red metal building with an awning on its front, and from this awning hangs a three-bulb traffic light.
“That’s going to flash green, we’re open, red, we’re not,” says Tracey Carrillo, assistant director of campus farm operations at NMSU.
The awning covers a cement porch, which won’t be empty for much longer.
“This area’s going to serve as a staging area for fresh produce and shrimps, so people can come on Saturdays and we’ll set up,” Carrillo says, likening the idea to a farmer’s market.
Outside the porch is a small field of damp soil and scattered throughout this field are baby pecan trees, probably not seven feet tall and probably never will be.
“Anything we put out here is going to produce something,” Carrillo says.
In the ample space behind the building, Carrillo says, will be greenhouses.
“We’re going to be growing anything that’s different in this area,” Carrillo says. “Like bananas and avocados, sea asparagus and wheat grass.”
Another unusual crop grown here is shrimp.
The water used in the shrimp nurseries within the building will feed these greenhouse crops. This water will be cleaned of waste through an aquaponics system.
Because these crops are salt tolerant, Carrillo says, the saltwater produced to raise the shrimp in will be no problem.
“This system, once it’s completed, will be zero waste,” Carrillo says.
Inside the building permeates humidity and the salty fish smell of East Coast beaches. There are two rooms, each large enough to house several towing trucks, separated by a door.
The business had formerly been located in Las Cruces, on Conway Street. It moved here in August and renovations are ongoing, such as in the first room, where a table saw and a pile of PVC pipe lengths are stacked up like cordwood.
These pipes are cut down to proper size and then fitted together to run along the cement ground and transport water between the shrimp nurseries. Fans in the walls oscillate seemingly at a million miles an hour and create near deafening whirring, pump this water.
The baby shrimp are raised in blue plastic pools, such as you might buy from Wal-Mart for the summer.
Carrillo gets a small blue net, as you might use to remove a pet fish in order to clean its tank, and runs it through the water in one of these five or six nursery tanks. When he pulls out the net and looks in its bottom, there is a handful of small gray worm-looking things.
“They’re called post-larvae, the babies,” Carrillo says. “And we get them from Florida, out of a hatchery there.”
At around two weeks old, the larvae are transferred to the grow-out tanks, larger aboveground pools, some with blue plastic tarps hanging over them.
Carrillo gets a larger net, such as a pool cleaner’s, and runs it through the water in one of the larger tanks. When he takes it out, in the bottom of the netting are three or four larger, though equally worm-resembling, gray things.
“These guys, they’ll probably be ready in about a month for popcorn shrimp,” Carrillo says. “In about December, they should be ready for Double Eagle.”
Each growing-out tank contains about 10,000 shrimp. Soon, there will be 11 grow-out tanks, Carrillo says.
The shrimp are nimble, Carrillo says. Many times, when Carrillo, Rod Rance, his partner in this venture, or one of the one and a half employees come in, they’ll find some shrimp flopping on the cement ground after having leapt out of the growing-out tanks.
“They’ll live out of water for a little bit,” Carrillo says, for hours, even.
Carrillo says he hopes the Mesquite facility can yield around 12,000 pounds of shrimp a year.
Further, Carrillo and Rance hope to franchise their business, in order to set up such a facility as the one in Mesquite around any metropolitan area, Carrillo says.
“We have two (franchisees) already,” Carrillo says.
One is in Las Cruces, the other in Boston. Further, Carrillo says people are “lining up” to establish other franchises, such as in between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as well as around the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
“The idea is to get these restaurants and people fresh, locally grown, all-natural shrimps,” Carrillo says. “Right now, 94 percent of the shrimp in the U.S. is imported, and it’s frozen, has preservatives, and a lot of it has antibiotics in it. So we’re trying to change that paradigm. (Our shrimp) is as good as wild-caught Gulf shrimp.”
To support this franchise model, Carrillo will travel to Stanford University to participate in Fish 2.0, a Shark Tank-esque specializing in investments for sustainable seafood businesses, November 10-11. Carrillo will have 90 seconds in which to pitch the company’s business model in the hopes of winning the $5,000 grand prize, as well as $150,000 in door prizes.
“But the main attraction to it is there’s going to be 300 people in the audience that are potential investors,” Carrillo says.
Carrillo says he plans on asking these investors for enough money to immediately set up another four franchises, in Albuquerque-Santa Fe, the Dallas-Ft. Worth-Austin corridor, Denver, and Scottsdale.
A franchisee can be licensed for about $60,000.
“There’s not very many franchises you can get into for $60,000,” Carrillo says.
NMSU owns the technology and processes of the business, Carrillo says. So if the business franchises further, then the university will get royalties from each business set up, in addition to the three businesses already set up.
“Each person consumes about four pounds of shrimp a year,” Carrillo says, which could mean quite a bit of money, both for New Mexico Shrimp Co. and NMSU.
Carrillo says the business is comparable to shrimp grown in contained environments within the oceans, but his model is far cheaper.
“The largest cost in production is feed and utilities,” Carrillo says.
Another economical aspect of the business, Carrillo says, is the fact that many shrimp can be grown in a small space.
It took three years for Carrillo to figure out how to best grow the shrimp.
“But we can get someone up and going and growing shrimp within a couple months,” he says.
The water in both the nurseries and the grow-out tanks is the color of coffee with milk. This color is the result of the feed the shrimp are given. And within the feed lie the origins of this business.
Before New Mexico Shrimp Co., Carrillo’s efforts had focused on how to revitalize the cotton industry in New Mexico. Carrillo estimated total acreage for cotton in New Mexico was about 30,000, as compared to about 140,000 just a few years ago.
The price of cotton in New Mexico has stagnated for probably 30 years, Carrillo says, as a result of China’s and India’s increased production saturating the market.
“There’s just been an oversupply in the last three years, and it’s driven the price down from about 75-80-cent range to about 61, 62 cents (a pound),” says Sidney Hughs, an agricultural engineer in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At this value, cotton production is not profitable, Hughs says, leading to the reduction in acreage.
Other than the fiber cottonseed produces, the cottonseed itself also has value.
“(Regular cottonseed) is worth about $200 a ton,” Carrillo says, which is low.
The reason for cottonseed’s low market value is that it’s toxic, but is valued because it is a good natural source of protein.
Toxic cottonseed’s main use is for cow feed, says Hughs. Though not impervious to the toxic cottonseed, Hughs says cows are able to tolerate much more of it.
“(Cows) can metabolize something like 10 or 12 pounds a day of (the toxic cottonseed),” Hughs says.
This is because cows have four stomachs, the bacteria in which break down the toxins.
As he looked for a way to reinvigorate the cotton industry, Carrillo and other researchers developed a new, toxin-free variety of cotton, which still maintains traditional cottonseed’s high protein content. They then started blending this toxin-free meal with fishmeal, to see if it could reduce the cost of traditional fishmeal, which is about $2,500 a ton, while also creating a demand for more cotton production.
“Our thinking is that if we can help the cotton growers get more value out of their seed, then we’ve helped the cotton industry for New Mexico and all along the Cotton Belt,” Carrillo says. “And if we can help the aquaculture farmers reduce their feed costs, then we’ve helped that industry, as well.”
An increase from $200 to $600 a ton for cottonseed would jumpstart the industry in New Mexico, Carrillo says.
Ideally, Carrillo says, the process of removing the protein from the cottonseed would be constrained to cotton gins, thereby reducing any increased costs of production.
“So that’s where this all started was with trying to add value to cottonseed,” Carrillo says. “And it’s evolved into a commercial aquaculture industry in New Mexico.”
Carrillo says the business is the result of equal parts planning and serendipity.
The toxin-free cottonseed was first fed to shrimp in a small lab, Carrillo says. The decision to grow shrimp as test subjects came from the fact they mature very quickly, as compared to other marine life, such as sea bass, which can take up to two years.
“If you lose a crop of sea bass towards the end, you’ve lost a lot of investment,” Carrillo says. “You lose one crop of shrimp, you can recover.”
After such testing, which resulted in no developmental difference between shrimp that were fed traditional meal and those that were served the cottonseed meal, Carrillo says, Carrillo sent out emails to the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences announcing small-scale shrimp sales.
“And people would line up before we opened around the building with their coolers,” Carrillo says. “And we started thinking, ‘Maybe this could be a commercial venture.’”
After examining costs of production, Carrillo found the fledgling business yielded significant profits.
It was during one such sale that Rod Rance, developer of aluminum trailers, who eventually sold that venture to Warren Buffet, approached Carrillo and expressed enthusiasm in the business.
“He saw the potential in a shrimp industry in New Mexico,” Carrillo says.
After Rance invested in the idea, the New Mexico Shrimp Co. was born, developed from Carrillo’s collaboration with the Agricultural Experimentation Center, the Arrowhead Business Center, and private investments from such people as Rance, who works as Carrillo’s business partner and serves as the operation’s “brawn,” whereas Carrillo, who had no prior business experience, serves as the operation’s “brain.”
Larger scale feedings of the cottonseed are currently underway.
“Our concern is water quality over extended periods of time,” Carrillo says.
After feeding the cottonseed to a larger sample of shrimp for a year, Carrillo says they will retest the water quality.
“So if it doesn’t affect water quality, then we’ve hit a homerun,” he says.
Though currently focusing only on shrimp, Carrillo says the business is not ruling out branching out into the production of other seafood, such as prawns, crawfish, tilapia, and catfish.
“The future of seafood is going to be from facilities like this,” Carrillo says.