Author Archive | Andrea Swenson

aquaman

Aquaman

Growing 5,000 sustainable shrimp in Newburgh

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY KEITH FERRIS

Shrimp do not grow in gardens. Nor do they grow in urban basements. Nor has much of Jean Claude Frajmund’s life direction been conventionally linear. Until now.

Born in Brazil to French and Belgian parents, Frajmund, founder of ECO Shrimp Garden in Newburgh, zigzagged through locations like Rome, Paris and New York, doing stints in the film, digital television, culinary and computer industries. Only his unwavering dream, spawned at the age of 16 on the beaches of Brazil, has remained constant. During a three-month trek, he would wade, early in the morning, into chest-high water with a partner to net more than 40 pounds of local shrimp. The fresh, sweet taste of the ocean shrimp was a sensation he would never forget, and he became determined to share such an experience with everyone, land locked or not. This was the path that brought Frajmund’s life circling round to an empty mattress factory in Newburgh—to grow shrimp in his inland, industrial garden.

The diminutive crustaceans in their
spa-like habitat unknowingly carry the weight
of Frajmund’s remarkable dream.

Jumbo Shrimp Problem

The United States is a shrimp glutton. Americans eat, on average, four pounds of shrimp per year—slightly less than the total amount of salmon and tuna consumption combined. Of all the shrimp eaten in the U.S., 94 percent are imported. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. importation of shrimp in 2015 was 585,826 metric tons, or nearly 1.3 billion pounds. The USDA reported an all-time-high imported shrimp haul in 2014, valued at over $6 billion. The demand created from the hoopla of low-priced “endless shrimp”–type promotions and readily available frozen shrimp at supermarket and chain stores has unwittingly caused a tidal wave of endless suffering and destruction for Southeast Asian exporting countries. The ravages are two fold—the mangrove forests and the people.

Mangrove forests are one of the earth’s greatest filters. Guardians of the shoreline, mangroves once covered three-quarters of the world’s tropical coastlines, with the greatest variety inhabiting Southeast Asia. Highly resilient, mangroves thrive in brackish water—up to 100 times saltier than any other plant can withstand. A powerful ecosystem, they hem the shoreline allaying erosion and entrapping many of mankind’s toxins from washing outward into the ocean. Defending seaward, mangroves buffer the horrific effects of tsunamis hurtling toward landfall. Mangroves are renewable food sources; they are, according to the Mangrove Action Project, “fish factories for the 210 million people who live near them and depend on them for food.”

Scientists have dubbed the mangroves “natural carbon scrubbers,” and research shows mangroves “sequester more carbon than any of their terrestrial counterparts.” What has put asunder these stalwart conservators? Shrimp farms.

The early 1980s saw the beginning of a new industry—highly profitable shrimp farms; outdoor ponds were built where majestic mangrove forests once stood. By 1996, Thailand alone had lost approximately 56 percent of its mangrove forests to such development. Like many poorly thought-out plans executed from greed and lack of foresight, the outdoor shrimp ponds quickly were revealed as unsustainable. Farmed shrimp give off ammonia; unless the water is purified and oxygenated, they die. Bacteria also form in the ponds, promoting disease; accelerated amounts of antibiotics have to be introduced into the ecoculture.

Augmented global demand for shrimp must be met in such a scenario; growth hormones, fertilizers, disinfectants and pesticides become inevitable. Compounding the issue is the fact that these ponds only are sustainable from two to five years. More mangrove forests are eradicated; shrimp are produced that are overdosed, pumped up, barely viable and have become the standard for the world’s dinner plate—a practice Frajmund calls “somewhat Faustian.”

Most agonizing are the human victims, the Southeast Asian people. Across the board, the general population suffers from the shrimp aquaculture because reduced mangroves also mean a reduced source of food, medicine and fuel. There is also a tragic hidden cost; purported to help wild resources recover from overfishing, the “blue revolution,” as it is sometimes called, of outdoor pond shrimp farming has ushered in widespread abuse such as rampant slavery, child labor, human trafficking and death. Migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Burma are bamboozled or shanghaied into lifelong slavery on fishing boats, which drag the sea bottom at illegal depths, producing bycatch of endangered species. The bycatch is not released but ground up as food for the shrimp ponds.

On shore, women and underage children are employed in pre-processing factories or peeling sheds. Here they can be starved, physically abused, overworked and have passports confiscated and pay withheld. In 2011, the Thai Frozen Food Association reported about 200 legally registered peeling sheds. Speculative reports assert there could be between 400 and 2,000 unregistered sheds. The U.S. State Department’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report gave Thailand a Tier 3 rating—the worst designation—in 2014 and 2015.

While unabashed destruction of rainforests and melting polar caps has dominated the news, sadly, awareness by the crustacean-consuming public about wrongdoings and corruption in the Southeast Asian aquaculture is extremely low.

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Eco-mastermind Jean Claude Frajmund in his humid lab teeming with thousands of shrimp

Upon entering the doors of the
ECO Shrimp Garden, the
temperature becomes balmy
and pleasantly humid.

Small Hope

It’s no wonder why Frajmund is adamant about his shrimp garden. To him, the very term “garden” connotes good food, while the aquatic variety of the term “farm” connotes bad food. He has spent the last two years actuating a 35-year-old vision. Now updated, he has expanded that goal to encompass current circumstances. Frajmund’s beliefs, integrity and determination convince him that he can help pioneer a three-pronged approach to protect humanity and the environment, provide jobs and produce an artisanal product.

Upon entering the doors of the ECO Shrimp Garden, the temperature becomes balmy and pleasantly humid. There is a constant sound of pumps humming and water eddying. Defying expectations, there is no discernable trace of fish odor from the 3,500 to 5,000 Pacific White Shrimp swimming in the blue-and-white-checked tanks. The diminutive crustaceans in their spa-like habitat unknowingly carry the weight of Frajmund’s remarkable dream.

The first of its kind in the tri-state area, the ECO Shrimp Garden indoor tanks are one of a small but steadily expanding number in the country. The Pacific white shrimp growing here are chosen for their sweet taste, ability to adapt to indoor tanks and potential to reach a desired market size. The 11-day-old babies, so translucent they look like ghosts, develop to harvest size in four to six months. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program gives this shrimp its “Best Choice” ranking. The 24 tanks and four nurseries they thrive in are fitted with an Indoor Zero Water Exchange Systems (IZHEA), a totally closed system. The tap water that fills the tanks is recyclable, chemical free, hormone free and pollutant free. Shrimp in these tanks will never know the hazards of mercury, oil and other contaminants that swirl in the ocean. The saline content in the tanks, perfectly balanced at ocean standards, is achieved with U.S.-produced ocean salt. Unless a tank is being filled, the water usage is no more than the average household. But the essential key to success is a recent development in aquaculture technology known as “biofloc.” Before its introduction, all of Frajmund’s extensive research was dead-ended.… Read More

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A Tale of Two Hills

The path that yogurt wrought

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David Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns with his namesake yogurt

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Laura Joseph balancing her dairy output from Maple Hill Creamery.

Photography by Andrea B. Swenson

Cows will be mentioned only when necessary in this story. Struggle, conviction, family and dedication will be fully conveyed.

In the Taconic Hills of New York, situated among vast, open cornfields and up a narrow, twisty road, sits an unpretentious, yellow farmhouse and a large, one-story red outbuilding. Scattered behind are various ancillary structures. The bucolic surroundings belie the enterprise burgeoning within these walls. This is home to dairy farmer Tim Joseph, wife Laura, Tim’s sister, Julia, and her husband, Peter Meck, who have unwaveringly committed themselves to creating Maple Hill Creamery and its yogurts made with milk from 100 percent grass-fed cows.

In 2004, Tim and Laura became first-time dairy farmers with a herd of 60 traditional, grain-fed cows. Seemed like a good idea at first, but they soon realized conventional farming wasn’t working out for them. Tim decided to go against the grain. Literally. Enticed by the health values of a grass-based, forage-only system and “fascinated by turning sunshine into a product,” Tim carefully modified his cows’ diet, transitioning from grain to grass. By enabling his cows’ systems to function fully as they are designed—to roam freely and to consume high-fiber grasses that digest slowly, unlike corn and grain—the need for administering preemptive antibiotics is eliminated. Just one reason a grass-based approach is advantageous for the health of the animal, the ecology and the consumer.

With the chemical-free milk now being produced, Tim and Laura began making yogurt for their children. Their decision to generate yogurt was helped along by the fact that Tim didn’t “have the patience to make cheese.” Realizing a non-homogenized, longer and slower processed milk from 100 percent grass-fed cows could be turned into such a silken, full fat yogurt, the Josephs began setting up to sell their crafted product.

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This is a lot of vegetable-based
nutrition in a yogurt market
routinely plagued by excessive
amounts of sugar and additives.

GROWING PAINS

Success started to follow Maple Hill Creamery as they attended farmers’ markets, opened their own small store in Little Falls, which has since closed down, and obtained local and upstate distribution. Even still, gas expenses for deliveries were exceeding profits. In 2009, when Maple Hill Creamery yogurt appeared at the New Amsterdam Market in Manhattan, the response to their artisanal creation there caused an “aha!” moment for Tim and family. They realized their yogurt had a genuinely, promising future. The Josephs’ inadequate Little Falls, New York, facility was overwhelmed. So about this time Pete Meck, the husband of Tim’s sister, Julia, began committing time to this growing operation.

Pete moved into the farmhouse the end of 2009 by himself and by the following June, both he and Julia had picked up their New Jersey lives and headed north to join the struggling, family endeavor. Despite the force of family, the growing pains got worse. In order to evolve, Maple Hill Creamery had to recruit other grass farmers, as they are often called.

No easy task. Virtually all these farmers belong to a couple of organic dairy mega- cooperatives in the Northeast. To leave the security of a conglomerate for a singular, relatively unproven venture was not the way of the dairy world. The families eventually found a willing partner in Dharma Lea farm in Sharon Springs, which would later become their field agent enlisting additional farmers raising 100 percent grass-fed cows. By the end of 2015, Maple Hill Creamery will have 60 to 70 farms with 100 percent grass-fed cows signed on to help provide the milk needed for their yogurt production. (Dharma Lea farm is a designated learning hub of the Savory Institute, “which aims, as just one of its goals, to restore one-fifth of the grassland worldwide.”)

Even after going through a period of selling off anything they could to stay solvent, a considerably harder burden forced the Josephs and Mecks to make their biggest decision. Good news, bad news; the creamery needed a bigger production facility. An existing fluid milk bottling operation became available in Stuyvesant, New York (formerly Milk Thistle Organic Dairy which abruptly closed in 2011), and they went for it, not having a clue how to operate it. They all had each other’s support and they just kept right on going.

Maple Hill Creamery’s perseverance was rewarded as their product received further acclaim—and soon a renowned culinary group further down the Hudson would seek out their partnership.

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SAVORY CHARACTER

Blue Hill at Stone Barns had been working for a number of years perfecting its own yogurt from 100 percent grass-fed cows. Veering off in a different direction from the norm, their concept aimed to complement the seasonal flavor of yogurt from grass-fed dairy cows by adding vegetables rather than fruit to their product. Chef Dan Barber began the evolution at his Blue Hill restaurants by serving a dish, familiar and yet unconventional at the same time. Savory granola with beet yogurt. Patrons loved it.

Good thing it was so well received since there was a happy dilemma of Blue Hill Farm producing far more milk than the two restaurants (including the Manhattan outpost of Blue Hill) could possibly use for their in-house butter and coffee consumption. The Blue Hill group had considered crafting a cheese but acknowledged that the market was decidedly saturated. Seeing the yogurt’s success in the dining room, the Barber family recognized an enterprise that could be developed in line with their high standards.

Noticing a conspicuous yogurt gap in the dairy aisle, Dan along with his brother, David Barber, president and co-owner of Blue Hill, and Adam Kaye, vice president of culinary affairs at Blue Hill, worked together to formulate savory yogurts with the perfect balance, never allowing the dairy flavor to be overpowered by the vegetables.

With a love of nature imbued by youthful visits to their grandmother’s dairy farm in the Berkshire Hills, a farm they would eventually refurbish as adults, the Barber brothers have guided their food careers by the dictates of wholesomeness. “Know thy farmer™” has long been co-owners’ Dan, David and his wife, Laureen Barber’s mantra. When Blue Hill outgrew its own yogurt production capacity in 2014, David searched up and down the East Coast for a dairy facility. Though Maple Hill Creamery was by far the smallest facility that David interviewed for the position, he connected with Tim and knew the like-minded Maple Hill Creamery was the perfect choice to carry on their unique savory yogurt line.

Already growing many of their own vegetables at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, and Blue Hill Farm in the Berkshires and supplemented by local organic farms, the team was spurred on to add parsnip, sweet potato, tomato, carrot and butternut squash to the array, as well as the original beet. The organic vegetables, harvested in the fall for the Blue Hill savory yogurts, are pureed and flash frozen to retain flavor, freshness and color; they are not defrosted until blended into the yogurt. According to David, most of the yogurts contain “north of 25 percent vegetable puree, some contain north of 30 percent.” Only the tomato yogurt contains less then 25 percent due to the acidity.… Read More

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