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  When the Cocchio family decided to shut down their Campbellford pig farming operation a few …

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Shrimping in Ontario

 

When the Cocchio family decided to shut down their Campbellford pig farming operation a few years ago, they were not leaving agriculture, but simply trying to find an alternative that wasn’t as economically precarious. One day, while looking at news items and videos online, patriarch Paul Cocchio stumbled across the notion of aquaculture – growing aquatic species of fish or other sea life for food/feed purposes inland.

It was not a new idea, as many such facilities were operating throughout North America, but they were primarily raising fish. What intrigued Cocchio were a couple of facilities that were raising shrimp for the domestic North American market. And so he investigated further, and decided that this would be the new venture – and adventure – the he was looking for.

“Think of how many restaurants serve shrimp just from Toronto to Montreal. It’s the most popular seafood in North America – way more popular than any individual fish species. So it just made a lot of sense. My dad talked to some guys down the States and he decided to go with the brand of shrimp they were raising because of the availability of feed and the baby shrimp from them,” said son Brad Cocchio, who partnered with his dad in what is now First Ontario Shrimp, the only shrimp farm in Canada.

“And the type we raise is Pacific white shrimp, which is becoming very popular with restaurants and fish mongers in the bigger cities. We had some challenges along the way, but we’d never turn back now because there’s such potential. We now produce 400 or 500 pounds a week, and that’s with zero marketing.”

The ‘farm’ is located in the former hog barn on the Cocchio’s property, and measures 200 feet by 60 feet. It contains 16 growing tanks and four starter tanks.

 

“When they come in, it’s by courier from our supplier down south and they will come in a cooler with two bags. Each bag has 11,000 baby shrimp which go into the starter tank for a month. After that month, you move them from the starter tank to one of the grow-out tanks and there are in there for another three months, so the whole cycle is about four months,” Cocchio said, adding that one tank is always kept empty so that the water from one full of shrimp set for harvesting can be funnelled into the empty tank, allowing for easier access. Natural salt is added to the water to ensure its able to sustain the ocean-going shrimp, as well as a bacterial starter to encourage the growth of shrimp-friendly algae, which consume shrimp waster and become food for them as well.

The process of converting from pigs to shrimp wasn’t easy. The Cocchios began converting the barn in 2009, and at the same time were dealing with varying degrees of bureaucracy from multiple levels of government – something not wholly unexpected when you are the first at any new industry. The biggest hurdle, according to Brad, was getting the Canadian government to add Pacific white shrimp to the list of species that can be farmed in this country. They succeeded on all counts, and First Ontario Shrimp began serving its customers in 2015.

In the time between beginning the process and opening – more than five years – the actual conversion of the former hog barn into an indoor shrimp farm happened.

“We really haven’t had to ask for much outside help. We had a plumbing company come in and do a little bit of work because they were a lot faster at it than dad and I. But, really, most of the construction was did ourselves. When there’s five years of red tape, it means a lot of time to occupy ourselves. We had a company come in and pour the concrete and we put all the liners in and put all the salt in the water  But any local contractor we’ve dealt with has been so supportive, as have members of the public – many of whom are just curious,” Cocchio said.

“I will always let visitors see what we’re doing and I think it really opens their eyes as to just how big it is. I think a lot of people believe it’s just a kiddie swimming pool in our garage.”

 

And even with all the research that the Cocchios did, they found out the hard way that shrimp farming was an exacting proposition. A very slight change in water temperature and salinity, and you’ve lost your meal ticket.

“They are very susceptible to any changes in the water. It will kill them. I remember with our very first batch we put them in the starter tank, and because they’re so small you can’t really see them or if they’re moving around. Well, after a month we pulled out 500 live ones after starting with 12,000. The worst part was we didn’t even know what we did wrong,” he said.

“We eventually learned that you have to be testing the water regularly, and you have to test for a lot of things to make sure it’s as stable as possible. So yeah, our very first yield was only about 15 pounds.”

First Ontario Shrimp serves mostly the Toronto market, but has recently begun filling orders from restaurants and fish mongers in Ottawa. Part of the reason why the big cities are the prime markets is that the shrimp are sold, purchased and served whole, something that is not as common to the North American palate, used to the shrimp rings at parties or the breaded shrimp in many eateries.

 

“We do have people who come to the farm for farm gate sales on Friday, which we do every Friday as long as people pre-order through the website. But those are people who are already familiar with seeing the whole shrimp on their plates. We do have some restaurants down in Prince Edward County, including at a couple of the wineries but, again, a lot of their clientele are people from the city, or people who used to live in the city,” Cocchio said.

“In places like Toronto and Ottawa there is a big demand. And they want the whole head because they can tell the freshness by the eyes. Anybody that really knows fish knows that if they eyes aren’t sunk into the head and they’re not cloudy, then you know you’ve got a nice fresh fish. I guess it’s people who have a more educated palate.”

That being said, one of First Ontario Shrimp’s big customers was John Bil, owner of the Honest Weight fish market in Toronto’s Little Portugal district. He contacted the Cocchios as soon as he heard what they were doing and placed an order. He’s been taking 40 pounds of shrimp to resell to his loyal customers every week since.

The business is becoming better known throughout the wholesale seafood and restaurant sectors, and increasingly by the general public thanks to winning a provincial Agri-Food Innovation Award recently.

“We entered the contest for the Premier’s Award feeling we had a good shot since our whole process is the very first of its kind in Ontario. We won the regional award which was $5,000 and we went into the province-wide contact and came in second, which was the Minister’s Award, and that was given our by the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Jeff Leal, along with another $45,000 and that’s got us so much attention and publicity. It’s been great,” Cocchio said, adding that he and his father want to keep expanding the operation but, like any good farmer, wants to make sure they do so cautiously and after evaluating all the variables involved in what is still a brand new industry.

“I would love to see our supply increase to help meet the demand even more. I still believe that there is volume to be had from the amount of water and amount of space that we’re using before we go and convert another barn over. I would like to know 100 per cent that what we’re doing is going to work before we put all that time, effort and expense into that. I am not ruling it out and I am not going to say it’s going to happen in five years, but that’s certainly the goal.”

For more information, visit www.firstontarioshrimp.com.

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