BIG LITTLE BUSINESS
Shrimp operation opens in Noxon
January 7, 2021
AquaPrawnics, a shrimp production and hatchery focused on indoor aquaculture of clean, fresh and sustainable salt water shrimp and prawns, has opened its first facility in Noxon. "It's one of the most unique and unexpected businesses that you would expect out of western Montana," said AquaPrawnics CEO John Novitsky. Alongside shrimp farming, AquaPrawnics plans to utilize the waste from the shrimp operations. Biochar, a byproduct from generating their own renewable energy, and algae they grow on site will be used to produce a range of soil amendments to be used as a fertilizer that will be sold to farmers.
Novitsky says there are several reasons why the company chose to build a facility in Noxon. He has also found a couple of unexpected benefits because of the location. "The primary reason is that two of the co-founders are from Montana, and they preferred to be close to home," Novitsky stated. "Rod McNeil, he's the chief scientist regarding the shrimp, and John Sheldon is the chief scientist regarding the soil amendment," Novitsky continued. "The second reason why we did this in Montana, and why Noxon specifically, it's in what is called a special purpose opportunity zone. It has tax benefits for the investors, and we were anticipating that the tax benefits would be attractive for them."
The CEO says there are two happy upsides of the Noxon facility, one of which has been the opportunity to work with the Sanders County Community Development Corporation (SCCDC) and the Lake County Community Development Corporation (LCCDC). "They have been phenomenal," Novitsky said. With help from the CDCs, AquaPrawnics was able to secure two grants from the State of Montana Business Development office for new job creation, as well as a grant from the Big Sky Trust Fund. "Me, as CEO, I can't say enough good things about the ease of business and the working relationship with the State of Montana, the LCCDC and the Big Sky Trust Fund," Novitsky expressed.
Another unexpected benefit Novitsky mentioned was concerning the shutdown of the indoor shrimp farming industry that the United States experienced in the later months of 2020. "The reason why," Novitsky explained, "there were several pathogens that were living on what are called the PLs (post larval shrimp). These are little baby shrimp, they are about the size of an eyelash, around 15 days old." These PLs, Novitsky says, are what they stock in their shrimp tanks. "If you're going to plant corn, you have to have seed corn; if you are going to plant wheat, you have to have seeds you are going to put in the ground," he explained as a comparison to the PLs.
"You buy these PLs from somebody who hatches them, and the primary sellers in the United States are out of Florida, Texas and Hawaii, all of which are, until recently, shut down due to pathogens that affected their PLs," Novitsky said. These pathogens that attach themselves to the shrimp lead to the shrimp infecting the others around and eventually dying. Along with the concerns of spreading these pathogens, AquaPrawnics has needed to address the concerns of bringing these non-native shrimp species into Montana. The Montana Department of Environmental Equality (DEQ) questioned the company about the possibility of these non-native shrimp becoming an invasive species in the state. "The temperature of the water at the facility runs from 83 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit," Novitsky stated. "I don't know that there's anywhere in Montana that has surface water that is 83 to 85 degrees. We also need salt water, and Montana doesn't have any of that either." He continued, "On one hand, it's correct, what we're doing is a non-native species, and because it's non-native, it could potentially be invasive. However, they die in water that's not saltwater and they die in water that's cold."
As other indoor shrimp farming companies may have been blocked from transporting PLs because of the pathogens, the unique circumstances and location of AquaPrawnics has allowed them to continue doing business without the fear of spreading these pathogens to other states and countries, such as Canada.
Novitsky reiterated the chances of the shrimp becoming an invasive species is zero; and the pathogens that hitchhike or could transfer from the shrimp into the wild and become invasive is also something that could not happen. "Because of this, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is greenlighting us to do exports from Montana to Canada," Novitsky said. "It's helping the Canadian shrimp farmers because they currently don't have any suppliers right now." While the non-native shrimp grown in the facility was expected to be a liability, it has actually turned out to be a feature for the company. "The other diseases that are prevalent in the places where these warm water, saltwater shrimp normally grow, they're just not present in Montana," Novitsky stated.
The company started working on the facility in early 2019. The building that houses AquaPrawnics sat empty for the previous 12 years. "Any building that's unoccupied in Montana and has gone through 12 Montana winters, well, the place was a mess," Novitsky said. "We had to fix the roof, the walls, change the electrical and plumbing, all of that had to change in order to put a shrimp farm in there."
First Security Bank in Thompson Falls owned the building and helped the CEO with a smooth transition. "They were really great to work with," Novitsky said. "They just let us work on it, and when we got the money together, they let us buy it. Mike Thilmony from First Security Bank and Marie Hirsch from LCCDC were just phenomenal to work with." While the company is building the business in increments, they had their first harvest in December. As of right now, they have around 40 vendors buying and exporting shrimp to six different states. "One year from now, the site in Noxon will be the highest producing indoor shrimp farm in the Americas," Novitsky stated.
The AquaPrawnics building is a class 10,000 clean room, which utilizes HEPA filtration systems to maintain air cleanliness levels of a maximum of 10,000 particles per cubic foot. While half of the building is dedicated to farming the shrimp. The other half is yet to be utilized until business progresses. "Earlier last summer, we offered the LCCDC the other half of the building to turn into an emergency COVID-19 medical ward," Novitsky said. "The way our air filtration works, and the cleanliness we're maintaining in that building, it exceeds every surgical room in the state of Montana. With the crisis raging and everybody struggling with where to put the excess people that are sick and need ICU beds, we wanted to offer that to the LCCDC. We want to be a good community partner, and if we aren't using the space and there is a need for overflow capacity, we want to help. I am hoping that they don't have to take us up on it."
AquaPrawnics has tried to keep the local community involved by hiring local companies to help with updating the building and preparing the facilities for the use of saltwater. "Most of the hiring so far has been people doing construction," Novitsky said. "Eventually what will happen out of that facility is that we will have more than a dozen, but less than 20, full-time permanent jobs there."
With the basis of the company doing business at a commercial level, they have also had interest at a local level to purchase shrimp. Instead of an online ordering system, the company will opt for a more personal approach and sell directly to the public. "We will have a shrimp tank in the lobby, and if people want to come in and buy shrimp, they will walk in the lobby, take a net and go fishing," Novitsky said. While the lobby will be open to the public for sales, there will not be public tours of the building itself. The reason why, Novitsky explains, is due to two different vectors of transmission, the second of which is caused by humans inadvertently bringing in viruses and bacteria that could wipe out their entire crop.
"It's because of that clean room and these kinds of very strict protocols that we are able to grow them without using any antibiotics and any other types of chemicals that have been used by other companies to combat these viruses and bacteria," Novitsky said. "In order for the shrimp meat to be clean and contaminant free, we just can't let the public in." The lobby, which will be open for public sales, will be on a completely different HVAC system than that of the shrimp growing facility. While the lobby isn't yet open to the public, Novitsky is hoping to start selling to the public this year.