Back to school

Back to school

It’s that time of year again. Time to head back to school and broaden the knowledge base. Time to meet new friends and reacquaint yourself with old ones. Going back to school is kind of what I’ve been doing, but not quite. 

No, I’m not working on a graduate degree. I took my education in a different direction. 

I bought my former school. 

Ridgeway Elementary

Technically, “we” bought my former school. Sherill and I have entered into a purchase agreement with the city of Ridgeway that will end with us owning the former Ridgeway Elementary building where I attended kindergarten through sixth grade in the 1970’s. 

It all started with a link. I was looking through a newspaper online just before Christmas 2013. They had a story about a new business in their town that had recently opened up for customers. I thought it looked interesting, so I passed along a link to the story to Sherill. Within a day or two, a local TV station (where my televised brain surgery aired) did a story on that same business and its unique situation. 

Sherill had a couple days off from work, so she sat at her computer and did a bunch of Google work. It didn’t take long before she informed me that she felt we should get into this same business, based on what she had seen and learned in her research. 

Shrimp.

She wanted us to start raising shrimp.

I was skeptical, to put it mildly, but I was also intrigued. The biggest draw for me was the fact that I love to eat shrimp. Love them. When I go to a steak place, I frequently order shrimp and skip the beef. At several of our favorite stops at the various food festivals at Disney World, shrimp are prominently featured. Standing in line for seconds at those places isn’t unheard of for me. 

Sherill ran a few numbers by me. They didn’t sound bad, but I still wasn’t sure how well this would work in a cold climate like we have here in this corner of Iowa. Tank heaters, she told me, would be the answer. Put your tanks inside a building, put a tank heater in the tank and you’d be all set. 

My first thought was, “Yeah, okay, but in which building will we be doing this?” All of our former hog buildings didn’t really strike me as good candidates for shrimp production. Leaving aside their structural and insulation issues, I was thinking more along the aroma lines. Few people ask their server for “something with a bit more old hog shed essence to it.” 

The other thing that was running through my head was the ballpark estimates I kept seeing people throw out on discussion forums whenever someone asked what it would cost to build a new shop with a concrete floor and insulated walls. I kept coming up with lots and lots of zeros when I thought about the dimensions of some of the sheds I’ve seen built. A million bucks didn’t used to seem remotely possible as a final cost for a farm building, but that’s the hurdle that had been crossed more than once by buildings I’ve seen. 

When I was at my desk one day and Sherill was in the shower, the water suddenly turned off and she hollered, “Hey! What are they doing with the old school in Ridgeway?” 

Inside Ridgeway

Uh, let me think. Last I knew, it was being used as sort of a prep kitchen to clean up produce from local growers so they could sell it at farmers markets and CSA’s. Other than that, the city of Ridgeway may have been using it as a library, but I wasn’t really sure. All I knew for sure was that the school district was made up of four towns. The high school, middle school and elementary school are in Cresco, a town of about 4,000 people. The three outlying towns of Elma, Lime Springs and Ridgeway each had an elementary school and a population of around 300 to 600 people. The school board was made up of people from all communities except Ridgeway a few years ago. The decision was made to close one outlying center, due to decreasing enrollment. Purely by coincidence, the one chosen to be closed was Ridgeway. The school district sat on the building for a while and finally sold it to the city of Ridgeway a couple years later for a dollar. 

Sherill ran some numbers by me on her thoughts for the shrimp enterprise. She and The Chairman Emeritus then paid a visit to my banker in Ridgeway to see what his thoughts were on the project. The Chairman has always been a big economic development guy in our area, so I figured he’d be a better addition to the meeting than I would. Plus, he has an extra forty or so years of experience with the bank than I do. 

My banker was quite intrigued, especially by the school building angle, so we decided to pursue it further. We got in touch with the city leadership and asked for an opportunity to talk to them at their next city council meeting. They managed to schedule that for a date when Sherill had to work, so I got to go and speak to them to run the idea past them and see how they felt. 

Let’s look at some numbers again. Ridgeway has a population of about 300 people. If we go back to when my ancestors came to America from Ireland and settled a couple miles west of Ridgeway, we’re looking at the mid-1800’s. I’m not exactly an outsider with some harebrained scheme. I’m a local with a harebrained scheme. 

Totally different deal then.

The Happiest Place on Earth

The council was made up of people I’m either related to, went to school with, have done custom work for, have dealt with in business, or knew from my days as a student at the school. It was a comfort to know that I was speaking to a fairly familiar audience, but it was still a challenge to get the information to them without sounding like a know-it-all. Sherill is the shrimp expert. I’m just Guy No. 2, that goofball they see driving around in a yellow dune buggy all year long. 

The city council was quite receptive to my presentation. They didn’t really have any firm plans for the building, and they didn’t really have a number to throw out as to how much they wanted for it, but we both decided to do some more research and meet again. 

Shrimp in Florida

Meanwhile, Sherill was doing a bunch of work on a variety of fronts. She put together a survey we sent to various restaurants and grocery outlets to see if they would be interested in handling our product – fresh, live shrimp grown locally. The response was quite positive. We extended our survey area out a bit further than we originally thought and discovered there was more demand than we realized. 

Personally, I do some of my best thinking in Florida. Time-wise, my brain, I’ve found, works much better when it goes through a rapid freeze-thaw cycle. Something along the lines of twenty below in Minneapolis followed by mid-80’s in Orlando about three or four hours later. Add in some time at The Happiest Place on Earth and I’m firing on all cylinders and cooking with gas. 

Sherill suggested after our trip to the Asian market that we weren’t particularly pressed for time or deadlines, so maybe we should see if there were any shrimp operations in Florida we could visit. Sure, there was that little display of tank-raised shrimp in The Land at Epcot, but she was looking for something more involved than the Behind the Seeds Tour. She wanted to see an actual farm. 

Google to the rescue! I did some work and found a place about an hour or two away from Disney. That seemed reasonable. Granted, I know it seems like food drives a lot of my activities, but I also realized that this particular shrimp operation was within a half hour’s drive of one of my all-time favorite seafood restaurants, The 12A Buoy in Fort Pierce, Florida!

The Professor and Guy No. 2 at The 12A Buoy, January 2014

My first try at calling the shrimp operation failed. The number was no longer valid. Another number was found. Same deal. Not valid. Then it hit me. If I were trying to find a business in Cresco, Iowa, I’d call the Chamber of Commerce and the friendly volunteer who would answer the phone would get me all the information I needed and then some. I’d then show my gratitude by saying, “Thanks, Mom!”

Clearly, this town in Florida probably has their own version of Elsie Ryan. Florida Elsie would get me hooked up without all the delays and dead ends. 

Sure enough, all the really cool towns have an Elsie at their Chamber office. One call and the friendly voice at the Chamber said she just happened to have the cell phone number of the gentleman I was looking for and she’d gladly share it with me. 

I saw some great tours when I went to The World Ag Expo in California in 2008. Lots of stuff that a farmer from the Midwest doesn’t see every day. Our tour of the shrimp business in Florida took that to a whole new level. We went inside what we were told is the world’s largest pole shed. We weren’t given exact measurements, but I tried counting sky light as we drove by the outside and I’d guess it to be somewhere in the 1500 to 1800 feet long range and maybe two or three hundred feet wide. 

Shrimp at The Land in Epcot

The pools inside the building were enormous. We’re not talking little backyard swimming pools here. We’re talking ovals of maybe a hundred or two hundred feet long and thirty or forty feet wide. When our tour guide asked how big an operation we were thinking of starting as we lined up our tour over the phone, I wasn’t sure, so I threw out a ballpark number I hoped wouldn’t be wildly high or low and expose me as the seat-of-the-pants guesser I was at the time. 

“Oh, I don’tknow, maybe five thousand pounds per year.”

That didn’t seem overly huge to me, but still significant enough not to be a couple of rank amateur hobbyists with a kiddy pool in their garage to produce a shrimp cocktail every eight weeks. 

Turns out my tour guide’s operation produces several million pounds of shrimp each year.

Millions. Multiple millions.

Duck! It’s those zeros again.  

My friend the marketing professor who took us to the Asian market went along with us for the shrimp tour. She was fascinated by it. We finished up our tour with a stop at The 12A Buoy to review what we learned and where we needed to go from there. 

Turns out my brain works better as the pie gets taller and requires more insulin. The 12A Buoy had me thinking quite clearly by the time I paid the bill. 

Drive your Skid Loader into School Day

With so much to learn about this industry, Sherill decided she needed to expand her horizons. She decided to attend a national aquaculture convention not long after we got back from Florida. Shediscovered a couple of different things. First off was that we did everything backwards from most people in the shrimp business and/or aquaculture in general. We went out and found a customer base with demand first. Then we looked at production. Most people get fired up to raise the product and then realize about the time that they’re ready to hit the plate that, hey, we need to go find customers and some way to sell all of this stuff! 

The other thing Sherill found was that people especially love to buy products from a company with a catchy name. If it comes down to the name, the catchy one will win. So don’t go with Invector Corp to sell shrimp. Go with something that will make an impression on people.

We would more than likely be selling shrimp from a former school building, so I came up with an idea for the name and a marketing slogan: Sherlock Shrimp . . . . It’s elementary, my dear! 

Trust me, that didn’t come from a turkey sandwich and a salad. There were little plumes of smoke coming off my insulin pump when that gem hit me. 

As the great philosopher, David Letterman, once said, “There is no OFF position on the genius switch.” 

While we wait on the attorneys to get all of the paperwork finalized before we actually take legal possession of the building, we have begun some work inside my former school. I won’t lie to you. There is just a hint of satisfaction in taking a sledge hammer to the walls of your former classrooms and then driving a skid loader down the halls. I highly recommend it. 

Strangely enough, this school purchase isn’t a first, either. When some construction work was being done on the school building in Ridgeway a million years ago, Guy No. 1 was in kindergarten. (He’s a bit older than me.) He ended up going to a one-room country school while the remodel work was being done in metro Ridgeway. 

Want to guess where that one-room school was? If you’ve read these stories recently, you may remember.

It’s in the field I own that we call The Schoolhouse.

This now makes two former schools I will be farming. 

Make a note of this, Mr. School Superintendent: I have my eye on that high school in Cresco.

Tic-toc. 

@GuyNo2

Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.

Read more blogs from Jeff.

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