Book Review—Marifarms Started It All
Marifarms, Inc., the first industrial-scale shrimp farm in the world (hatchery, impoundments, ponds, feeds, patented technology, government loans, scientists and investors), got started in Florida, USA, in 1968, and went out of business in 1982. The original strategy was to stock an enclosed bay with shrimp and then use commercial fishing techniques to harvest the crop. Later, the strategy changed to farming shrimp in huge ponds. In the early 1980s, when its hatchery project in Ecuador failed, Marifarms went out of business. In Memoirs of a Shrimp Farmer, a 200-page, paperback book, John Cheshire, the manager of Marifarms from beginning to end, tells the farm’s story in short, year-by-year chapters interspersed with black-and-white photographs, maps and press clippings.
From the Back Cover of Memoirs:The author has a bachelor’s degree from Yale and a master’s degree from MIT, both in chemical engineering. He also has an MBA from Harvard, Class of 1951.
John was financial officer and later chief operating officer for Marifarms, Inc., the pioneering company that laid the groundwork for modern day shrimp farming. This book describes the adventures of those early years.
Cheshire Says: This book is dedicated to my wife, Julie, the love and treasure of my life; to the investors of Marifarms, Inc., who ventured into the unknown and helped develop a giant new industry; and to the loyal employees of Marifarms, Inc., who were with us to the end.
From the Prologue: The early research required by this mighty new industry was performed by the Japanese from 1930 to 1968 and by the commercial development of Marifarms, Inc., from 1968 to 1982.
Only a few of the original Marifarms crew are left, all but one retired. Chris Howell, a biologist Marifarms trained in the early 1970s, is still hard at work as a hatchery manager in Malaysia.
The following account will tell the reader the role Marifarms played in the development of this giant new industry.
From the Introduction: I have presented the story in the form of a yearly report. The reason for this is that we were never sure if the progress in one year would justify investors risking money for the next year. It was a cliffhanger all the way. We only quit in the end because we had exhausted ourselves, our money and, more importantly, our ideas.
Table of Contents
Visit of a Japanese Group to Dupont—Early 1968
Marifarms, Inc.—Funding and Crop of 1970
Funding and Crop of 1971
Funding and Crop of 1972
Crop of 1973
Crop of 1974
Funding by FmHA and Crop of 1975
Refunding by FmHA and Crop of 1976
Marifarms 1977 Partnership—And Crop of 1977
Crop of 1978
Crop of 1979
Crop of 1980
A Hatchery in Ecuador
Present Status of the Shrimp Farming Industry
Appendix: Early Days of Commercial Shrimping in the USA
Introduction: It should be long past the time when I gave much thought to shrimp farming since I left that endeavor some 23 years ago and I am now at the ripe old age of 79.
With encouragement from my wife Julie, who has invested much of her life and extensive personal holdings in the enterprise of shrimp farming and other friends and associates who have done likewise, but not perhaps to the same degree, I feel obligated to give an account of how this great new industry began and our role in it. I am sure the stockholders of Marifarms, Inc., the company we started together, will be interested in this account because at its peak there were eleven hundred of us and virtually all who did not sell out lost their total investment.
Visit of a Japanese Group to DuPont—Early 1968: Dr. Paul Bente, my boss, asked me to attend a meeting with a group of Japanese marine scientists who had an interesting business proposal for DuPont. Our group in the development department of DuPont was set up to investigate and launch new businesses. Dr. Bente, a chemist with extensive research experience, headed our group; Dr. Russell Peterson, later governor of Delaware, was his boss. Though small, our group represented powerful interests within DuPont.
The meeting was introduced by Aki Kawaguchi, a young businessman from Tokyo; Dr. Mitsutaka Miyamura, a VP of Taiyo Fisheries; Lieutenant Colonel Joe Ikeguchi; and Lieutenant Colonel Mike Alba. The latter two were officials of a new company chartered in the USA named Akima International (Aki for Aki and ma for Mike Alba). It was represented at this meeting that Kawaguchi and Miyamura had acquired the patent rights for shrimp cultivation from Dr. Motosuka Fujinaga and that Dr. Miyamura had applied for a US patent on those rights in the name of Akima International. Documents covering these transactions were presented. Further, a survey of the eastern and gulf coasts of the USA had been made by Dr. Fujinaga, and Panama City was chosen as the most desirable of several potential sites for a farm.
We were struck immediately by the huge potential of the project. The technology was unique, original and appeared patentable. The market for shrimp was booming.
Conservative heads prevailed at the DuPont Company. When this project was reviewed by higher authorities, it was decided that though interesting, the company could not proceed on the basis that the product was “alive” and hence involved unknown risks. The project was outside DuPont’s business experience. We were deeply disappointed at the time and considered the rejection a sign of aging management.
Brushing aside misgivings, Paul Bente and I decided something had to be done and that we were the people who had to do it. We were both in our mid to late forties and ready for new and greater challenges than DuPont was prepared to offer. So we decided to go for it. We had investigated many projects together, none with the potential of this one. He was risking a solid career and reduced pension rights at DuPont. I had built a career at DuPont and had accumulated some $200,000 through inheritance and investments. I wasn’t worried about survival and knew Julie would be fine whatever happened. She had considerable independent assets.
Paul and I then called Aki Kawaguchi, the spokesman for the Japanese group. We told him the DuPont Company had turned down the deal but that he and I would put up $200,000, which we would share equally for 50% of Akima International. He agreed and we were off. Although neither Paul nor I had any qualifications for running a fishing or farming company, we were undertaking a project that DuPont, Taiyo Fishing and the government of Japan had rejected. We were exhilarated.
Akima International—1969: We acquired a one-acre lease from the Panama City Airport Authority on the shore of St. Andrews Bay and constructed a small hatching facility consisting of one concrete tank near an existing shed, within which some rudimentary tanks were built for growing plankton and the preparation of other hatchery feeds. Nearby was Little Goose Bayou—which Dr. Fujinaga had proposed as an experimental growout area. It had a narrow neck that could be easily netted off and was rich in natural foods. While he had never tried open water growout before, his prior experience being with small ponds, he visualized this as a cheap and perhaps better way to grow shrimp than ponds.
By the end of the first year, we were out of money but not enthusiasm. Paul and I both were still employed at DuPont. We put in another $200,000 for a bigger stake in Akima International. The technology was now legally ours and the experimental hatchery had started successfully.
Crop of 1974: By 1974, our team had developed a close relationship with Ralston Purina, which was operating an experimental shrimp hatchery in Cedar Key, Florida. The research team there was headed by Dr. William MacGrath, Harvey Persyn, Ron Staha and Joe Mountain, all competent marine biologists who developed into wonderful and loyal friends. Marifarms was to depend on them in the future for nauplii, which we could not find anywhere else.
A Hatchery in Ecuador—1981: Ecuador showed the world that farmers could capture wild postlarval shrimp, stock them in ponds and produce a profitable crop of large shrimp. But many of the ponds that were constructed for shrimp farming were lying idle because wild seedstock was not always available. There was a crying need for a shrimp hatchery in Ecuador.
I started looking for a partner in Ecuador.
A reasonable candidate appeared to be National Protein, traded on the American Stock Exchange with an operating division in Ecuador called Empacadora National, which harvested and sold tuna and shrimp. It also owned a small shrimp farm near Machala, so the fit seemed excellent for us. We met the Empacadora Nacional president whose name was Harry Graham (about whom much more will be reported later). His credentials seemed fine. His father was from North Carolina and his mother from Peru. Although Latin in appearance, he spoke English like an American. One of his brothers ran a hospital in Chicago and his son Jeffrey graduated from Davidson College.
A team from Empacadora visited us in Panama City. The men were Harry, Jeffrey, a biologist named Pepe Plans, and an important shrimp grower named Esteban Quirola. Esteban wanted to build a farm on Isla de Puna, an enormous island in the mouth of the Guayas River. All spoke glowingly of the possibilities for farm expansion—if there were a good source of seedstock.
We immediately drew up a contract for a hatchery, awarding 49% ownership to Marifarms, Inc., and 51% to Empacadora, a condition dictated by Ecuadorian law. Empacadora was to advance $100,000 and Marifarms $20,000, the balance to be credited to Marifarms based on its technical expertise. The agreement called for Marifarms to design, build and operate the hatchery.
Present Status of the Shrimp Farming Industry: Much of the information I have been citing about Asian shrimp has come from Chris Howell who was here in Panama City recently. On leaving Marifarms in 1983, he spent several more years in Ecuador, and then moved to Venezuela for 14 years. He has recently moved to a hatchery in Malaysia and works for an American company called Black Tiger in Mersing, Johor. Chris is originally from Bonifay, Florida, a little town north of Panama City. He first worked for Marifarms in the field as a diver in the 1970s, then moved to our hatchery where he learned shrimp culture. While at Marifarms he acquired a degree from FSU in marine biology. Chris still calls Bonifay home base.
Memoirs of a Shrimp Farmer, Editor/Publisher, John R. Cheshire, $19.95 (includes postage and handling). Send your check to John R. Cheshire, 463 Sudduth Avenue, Panama City, FL 32401 USA.