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Urban farmers growing shrimp in Hampden

Don Barton and Billy Thomas

In an old cinderblock building near the foot of 36th Street in Hampden, the latest addition to Baltimore’s urban farming push is under construction.

Large tanks, filters, drains and pipes are being fitted into the old building, which for years sat vacant and blighted. This summer, 1,000 larvae of freshwater shrimp, or prawns, will be released into water tanks inside.

The result: a fledgling urban aquaculture business venture called The Prawn Shop.

Once known for sustainability thanks to a towering up-do lacquered with hair spray, Hampden has now refocused a part of its image to greening.

“We are gradually hooking up the space,” said Billy Thomas, 24, a founder of the Baltimore Free Farm, which is working with four ecologists, engineers, landscapers and arborists to open the shrimp-raising facility in the farm’s new 6,500-square-foot Sustainability Center.

The prawn venture is the latest entry in Maryland’s growing aquaculture industry, which last year brought in $3 million in revenues, said Karl Roscher, aquaculture coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture. It is also unique because of its urban setting, on a residential street just off of the Jones Falls Expressway.

“Aquaculture is on the rise here,” Roscher said of the industry, which includes farm-raised oysters and crabs.

“And there is an interest in local products, and that’s helping it expand. Consumers are asking where their seafood comes from, there’s a good demand for it and it’s definitely going to expand in the future,” he said.

At present, there are 80 licensed aquaculture farms in the state, Roscher said, 50 of them considered full-scale commercial entities.

The industry has the potential to triple in size over the next few years — evidenced by the state moving his position to the Department of Natural Resources effective July 1 to streamline permitting requests, Roscher said.

In October, Gov. Martin O’Malley formed a program to offer affordable financing to watermen and others interested in launching or expanding commercial shellfish aquaculture operations in Maryland.

The program provides $2.2 million in low-interest loans for aquaculture projects through the DNR and the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corp. Funding for the loans comes from the state’s $10.6 million oyster restoration budget.

The 1,000-square-foot Prawn Shop farm has great potential, Roscher said, because it offers a sustainable plan for aquaculture and jobs for city residents. Sales of the prawns to local restaurants will also save on transportation costs, and, ultimately, keep the price of the seafood low.

Chris Streb, 39, is a partner in the Hampden aquaculture farm. He is an ecological engineer who met partner Peter May when the two were students at the University of Maryland. They have been hatching the plan to raise shrimp that way ever since they took an aquaculture class in college. May even experimented by raising shrimp in a plastic swimming pool in his backyard six years ago.

Nowadays, they are working with two other partners at “getting the foundation for a real business plan” for the prawn farm, expecting to launch it by mid-summer when the electrical, aquatic and drainage systems are connected inside the old building.

In the meantime, Thomas and his partner, Don Barton, have been working with the collective to renovate the building with supplies they have gathered through their Baltimore Free Farm. Free Farm workers recently replaced the roof for $4,000, saving about $26,000, Thomas said.

Inside, they are setting up the prawn tanks with equipment leased from UM.

“We call around and tell people what we’re doing, and sometimes they come through,” Thomas said of the tenet of the Free Farm, which is to recycle a multitude of materials to grow gardens and maintain a simple lifestyle.

The 12-person collective has planted an acre of small, patchwork gardens in the 3500 block of Ash Street near the building where prawns will soon grow. The city donated the land under its “Adopt-a-Lot” program.

Budding gardens sprout basil, rosemary, tomatoes, beans, squash and a variety of other vegetable and flower annuals in the Free Farm’s first project. Saturday “work parties” draw volunteers who rake, weed and water the plots “like a farm family,” Thomas said.

The group is a nonprofit and receives donations for its efforts.

“Our initial investment is time and work,” he said of the renovations to the prawn farm building, rented for about $750 per month. “We made decisions each week to keep this place moving. The reason we do it is to find the best of the old and new technology, and to combine it in a space and be community-driven.

“We want to create a model and a tool — this challenges the idea of what it means to be a farm. People’s idea of farms is that they are antiquated and they often don’t know what’s going on out there.”

John Shields, chef and owner of Gertrude’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art and author of “Coastal Cooking with John Shields,” called the plan to open a prawn farm in Hampden creative.

“It’s a wonderful up-and-coming thing. It’s a good, consistent project,” Shields said, adding that he serves farm-raised seafood at his restaurant.

“It’s great to get more fish farming in urban areas,” he said, noting the addition of jobs for city residents. “The farm-raised is the fish of the future.”

The urban aquaculture experiment and the Free Farm’s vegetable and flower gardens — and beekeeping there — have enabled farm life to grow in the middle of a city neighborhood.

A logo featuring the Utz potato chip girl and the Natty Boh boy in an “American Gothic” pose is the Free Farm’s signature.

As the Prawn Shop operation forms, Thomas and Barton said they are looking forward to expanding their urban farming abilities into aquaculture.

“For a lot of us, we consider this a classroom,” Thomas said. “We’re each other’s teachers.”