Fayette County, Kentucky, may be hundreds of miles from the Atlantic Ocean, but that hasn’t stopped Jason and Heather Whitis from starting a fresh saltwater shrimp business on their farm.
Rolling Blue Farm is a full-time fruit and vegetable operation and the Whitis family wanted to offer something more, something unique, that they could market year-round. With some ingenuity and hard work, the answer turned out to be saltwater shrimp.
Building from the ground up
The first step was to construct the facility. To do so, Jason insulated the inside of an old tobacco barn and installed nine small swimming pools. “We heat the water, not the inside of the barn,” Jason said. Next, Jason and Heather purchased baby shrimp from Florida. They buy about 30,000 shrimp at a time, which is enough to fill up four pools. They have found that each pool then produces around 250 pounds of shrimp.
The Whitises sell their shrimp fresh – never frozen – and always with the head attached. Most frozen shrimp doesn’t include the head, but Jason explained that cooking the shrimp with the head attached adds extra flavor to the meal. This new venture is off to a great start. In one year, Rolling Blue Farm sold over 6,000 pounds of shrimp.
The biggest challenge Jason faces with producing shrimp is controlling the water quality. “We feed the shrimp twice a day, and we measure the amount of feed that goes into the pools,” he said. “The amount of feed must be precise to keep the water healthy. Twice a week Jason tests the amount of ammonia and nitrates in each pool and monitors feed intake.
In addition to shrimp, Rolling Blue Farm produces three acres of tomatoes, five acres of sweet corn and one acre of beans, along with cucumbers, squash, broccoli and strawberries. The farm has two greenhouses that, together, hold 700 tomato plants that produce both early and late crops that the Whitises sell at the farmers market. “I love taking products from the farm to the farmers market and getting the positive feedback from customers,” Jason said.
As first-generation farmers, Jason and Heather truly understand what it takes to build an operation. Jason is originally from Somerset and wasn’t raised on a farm. However, after graduating from high school, he worked on a fellow church member’s farm where he realized his passion for agriculture. “The farming bug bit me,” he said.
Jason majored in horticulture with an emphasis on vegetable production at the University of Kentucky. After college, he and Heather married and decided to start farming before having their child, Lillian Grace. What started out as a part-time venture soon grew into Jason’s full-time career.
“Farming has brought so many values to our family, such as the value of hard work and the ability to work together,” Jason said. “There is something so simple about it, but yet so complicated. It is challenging and also rewarding.”
Finding the right partners
Jason has worked hard to research farming practices and educate himself on both time-tested and new techniques. “To be successful, you have to be involved and network with others,” he said. “You have to learn how to market your product and learn from other farmers on how to manage your farm. There are a lot of people who are willing to help.”
One of the advisers Jason has found most helpful is his loan officer at Central Kentucky Ag Credit, Lisa Yeager. “I first met Lisa and Ag Credit through my connections with Kentucky Farm Bureau, and it has been a great relationship,” Jason said. “Lisa is always willing to answer any questions I have and to help with any rates and products I need.”
As the Whitis family looks to the future, they plan to open their operation to the public. They will offer tours of the shrimp operation and open an on-farm market, where they will sell shrimp, as well as produce. “We hope to provide customers with a clean, fresh product right here in Fayette County,” Jason said.