John Brawley: Raising seafood in a landlocked state

Courtesy photo
John Brawley is bringing a splash of the ocean to Vermont with his new shrimp farm operation at Nordic Farms.

PHYL NEWBECK

The old calf barn at Nordic Farms in Charlotte has some new inhabitants and they’re a bit smaller than the old ones. John Brawley has moved in with his new business, Sweet Sound Aquaculture, raising shrimp which will be sold to restaurants, as well as some retail locations.

Now 53, Brawley has a doctorate in marine, estuarine and environmental sciences. For many years, he ran an oyster farm in Duxbury, Mass., and from that base, he sold oysters to several Vermont venues. Brawley’s partner opened an orthodontic practice in Williston, so he decided to follow her to the state. He became friends with Andrew Peterson and the two of them looked for opportunities to house their respective businesses, eventually finding a home at Nordic Farms.

“The calf barn is roughly 4,000 square feet,” Brawley said, “and I’ve divided it into two sections.”

Brawley purchases post-larval shrimp which he describes as the size of an eyelash. They are shipped overnight and he acclimates them in a nursery tank for about a month. After that, they are transferred to larger pools. There are 24 tanks, in all.

“The whole process takes about three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half months,” Brawley said. “The goal is to have a sequentially batched supply that can be harvested on a weekly basis. The space can support 200 pounds a week if everything goes well.”

The barn has room for expansion and Brawley is hoping he’ll be able to grow his operation.

Brawley’s science background has assisted him in setting up his new business. It takes between six to 12 weeks for the microbial quality of the water to become consistent enough for the fish. The tanks have recirculating water with a biological filtration system. Any waste or sludge is taken out, dried and composted. The majority of the biological processing, a process known as “biofloc,” takes place within the water.

“Raising the shrimp is easy,” Brawley said, “but maintaining the water quality takes work.”

Sweet Sound Aquaculture will operate year-round. The barn was already insulated but critters had eaten away at the insulation so when Brawley moved in last fall, he got to work repairing the damage. The water is warmed through a radiant heat system that runs through a propane burner. “Each pool is maintained at about 80 degrees,” he said, “and that mass of water really heats the air and keeps it warm.”

Maintaining oxygen in the water is a challenge but Brawley has installed a large regenerative blower system to keep oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. To prevent catastrophic failure, there is a back-up generator.

“Everything is redundant,” he said.

Brawley has already hosted one event on the farm to benefit the Vermont Land Trust. At this juncture, he is selling shrimp to restaurants including the one at the Hotel Vermont and Bleu Northeast but there are several others that have expressed interest. Brawley said he would like to be able to sell directly to individual customers, which will probably require additional state permitting.

Brawley has been working with other farms to re-establish the Vermont Aquaculture Association, which would be a unified voice for marketing and education.

“It’s important to educate people on the importance of aquaculture,” he said. “It’s a healthy alternative to seafood that is shipped a long distance. Regionally shipped seafood is great and this is just another way to provide a highly valued protein source to Vermonters.”

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