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The shrimp farm built on cotton

A project to increase profits for cotton farmers has resulted in the set-up and rapid expansion of cotton-fed shrimp in a small New Mexico town.

By William Faulkner

The high desert of southern New Mexico is not where you’d expect to find a thriving, start-up shrimp aquaculture business but that is, in fact, where New Mexico Shrimp Company is located — at least 700 miles from the nearest ocean. It all began three years ago with a research study conducted by Tracey Carrillo, assistant director of campus farm operations at New Mexico State University located in Las Cruces. Carrillo set out to determine if value could be added to cotton crops through the sale of cotton byproducts.

“My thought in the beginning was to create a pilot plant to do research that included biofuel, food products, even bar soap from which 2 or 3 could be further studied to add value to cotton crops,” Carrillo explains to Fish Farming International. But one particular area of interest in the study was whether cotton seeds could be used as a substitute as the main protein in commercial aquaculture feed. An inexpensive protein replacement could present a significant costs savings in an industry where feed costs can be as much as thirty percent of operating expenses, giving shrimp growers a substantial increase in profits.

However, there was a problem. Cotton seed from conventional cotton varieties, already used in cattle feed, can only be added in limited quantities due to the presence of a naturally occurring toxin called gossypol. Therefore Carrillo’s initial research was focused on finding a variety of cotton that had little or no gossypol present in the seeds. This research led to a breakthrough in the discovery of a glandless variety of cotton with a low enough concentration of gossypol that it became possible to replace the main protein in shrimp feed.

This discovery was integral to Carrillo’s original research. But that turned out to be only the first answer to the many questions that arose from taking the results of a pure scientific research study program to developing and selling a product that has customers lining up down the street.