Sherlock Shrimp is growing in the elementary school

RIDGEWAY, Iowa — Sherlock Shrimp's 40 swimming pools of crustaceans fill what used to be the classrooms, gym and cafeteria of the Ridgeway Elementary School. Owners Sherill and Jeff Ryan have added shrimp to their farming enterprises of cattle,...

Sherill Ryan shows the finished product at Sherlock Shrimp in Ridgeway.

RIDGEWAY, Iowa — Sherlock Shrimp's 40 swimming pools of crustaceans fill what used to be the classrooms, gym and cafeteria of the Ridgeway Elementary School.

Owners Sherill and Jeff Ryan have added shrimp to their cattle, corn and hay. Sherill traded a nursing career for shrimp farming.

"It's like cattle farming in a swimming pool," Sherill said. "Shrimp eat rations like cattle, and you watch the rate of gain."

Basketball hoops are still on the wall and eight industrial-sized dehumidifiers line the gym stage.

"We put a salt water system into the pools, which contain biofloc (it) is essentially all the nutrients you would find in the ocean," Sherill said. "Biofloc feeds off the shrimp waste and keeps the chemistry of the water in line. It serves as a secondary feed source for shrimp and allows us to recycle and recirculate the water. We never dispose of the water."


They frequently test the water. When ammonia levels get high, they add molasses. Baking soda or lime control pH.

"Chemistry geeks love this," she said.

A feeder sits above each tank. Every two hours, the feeder vibrates and sends a ration of fishmeal and soybeans into the pool. The little ones receive higher protein in a fine grind that resembles coffee grounds. The bigger ones get pellets.

On Tuesdays three samples of 10 shrimp each from every pool are weighed and averaged.

"We do that to see how they're growing," Sherill said. "When we harvest a tank, we sort them. Anything less than 20 grams goes back into a tank to grow another week or two."

No larger than the head of a pin

The baby shrimp come from a Florida Keys' hatchery. They arrive by Federal Express, 60,000 at a time, no larger than the head of a pin

The babies are acclimated to the water over several hours before being released 20,000 to a tank.


Nets are placed over the tanks because shrimp start jumping at about 30 days.

"We came in one morning and there were shrimp all over the floor," Sherill said.

Covers go over the nets to retain heat and humidity. To prevent mold in shrimp-rearing areas, walls and ceilings are coated with foam.

In addition to the swimming pools, the Ryans are adding a tiered system with stacked tanks. The fry go in the top and come down to the lower tanks as they mature.

"It's continuous refilling with no lag time," Sherill said. "When they get to the bottom, we crowd them from one end to the other to sort them just like cattle."

They have learned through trial and error, consultants and from "the geniuses on Google," Sherill said.

She works with two employees. Josh Meyer graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a biology degree. Greg Hovey, a neighboring farmer, also helps. Two summer employees returned to college, but Sherill hopes to hire several Luther College students.

The business sells live shrimp, $20 per pound, from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. The sales area is painted in bright sea-inspired colors. The counter, covered with corrugated tin, resembles a fish shack. Beds of colorful perennials and herb planters crafted from old pallets decorate the outside. Sherill snips off fresh herbs for customers to take home.


Things are going well

"I just wish we had more shrimp to sell,'' she said. "We keep building."

With each run, the water quality improves and the shrimp survival rate goes up.

In addition to direct sales to consumers, several restaurants and the Oneota Food Cooperative in Decorah are customers. Several Rochester, Minn., businesses want to buy from them as well.

"We've been selling shrimp for three months, and we've been working on the project for a little more than a year," Sherill said. "I really like it. It beats nursing."

There is a relaxed atmosphere at Sherlock Shrimp. When Jeff's father, Tom, stops in, he meets old friends or classmates. Sherill and Jeff set up a table and chairs and make coffee . Sherill keeps her blue and gold macaw, Grocko, in her office. The Ryans also host Shrimp Academy, an educational day.

"It's nice to see something worthwhile being done with the school," said Tom. "You know where these shrimp are grown and the conditions they're grown in."

"A lot of people are interested in locally grown, know your farmer, know your food," Jeff said.


Mary Palmer, of Allison, and Pat Hagarty, of Charles City, were back for the second time.

"The shrimp are wonderful, very good," Palmer said. "We tried breaded two weeks ago and are thinking of grilling with garlic and butter this time."

As word gets out, customers come from greater distances. People from Des Moines and Minneapolis have driven to Ridgeway for shrimp. A California man who grew up in Ridgeway said he had to see the shrimp that were in the gym where he used to play basketball.

The elementary school closed in 2008 and the city got the building in 2010. Jeff and Sherill approached the council about buying the school in January 2014.

"When they found that that our production system wouldn't burden the sewer system, they were very interested," Jeff said. "I want to be the kind of business they're happy to have in Ridgeway. I love Ridgeway. I've spent my whole life here."

Jeff and his brother, Roger, farm together. They have 100 beef cows. They raise 1,500 acres of corn and hay.

Why Sherlock Shrimp?

"Sherlock Holmes always said, 'Elementary, my dear.' We wanted to work in the fact that we're in a school," Jeff said. "We're Sherlock Shrimp. Elementary My Dear."


Sherlock Shrimp owners Jeff, right, and Sherill Ryan and Tom Ryan, Jeff's dad, check out a swimming pool that is ready for 20,000 young shrimp which are the size of the head on a pin when they first arrive. They feed the shrimp to 20 grams and sell them live to consumers. They also sell shrimp to area restaurants and a food co-op.

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