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Highly touted shrimp farm now bankrupt

Founder Cliff Morris in 2014

Florida Organic Aquaculture, the highly-touted shrimp farm west of Fellsmere that pioneered an environmentally friendly form of aquaculture, has filed for bankruptcy and is for sale.
It was only a little more than three years ago that, with great fanfare and widespread support, South African entrepreneur Cliff Morris hosted the company’s official grand opening, and 300 or so state and local VIPS gathered to celebrate what was seen as an exciting new venture that would put Fellsmere on the map.
Everyone applauded the self-proclaimed “home of happy, healthy shrimp,” expected to produce a couple million shrimp per year.
The approximately $22 million project was largely funded by foreign investors, including Chinese, via the federal EB5 Immigrant Investment Visa Program. Additionally, the shrimp farm received a county jobs grant and a Community Development Block Grant to bring a natural gas pipeline along County Road 512 to service the facility.
But while the facility saw substantial early success, having a hard time keeping up with demand for its product, it wasn’t long before rumors of trouble began to surface.
By June 2016 the company was experiencing harrowing cash-flow issues.  Morris, just back from Hong Kong where he’d been seeking additional investment capital, was ever optimistic.
“It’s nothing we can’t weather. There’s lots of stuff in the pipeline,” he said, and praised his staff for “hanging in there” even when their paychecks were delayed for over a month.
“We’re hanging on by our teeth, and remaining tough,” Morris said.
The company was finally able to make that payroll with a fresh infusion of foreign cash, but more was needed to keep the nutrient-rich, temperature-controlled water flowing and nurturing the millions of baby shrimp within their carefully monitored nurseries.
This past April, Morris was forced to put the company into Chapter 11.  As of this week, the shrimp farm continued to operate under bankruptcy protection, albeit with a limited crew.
Morris, according to his office administrator, has been in negotiations that he “can’t comment on at this time.”  He did, however, forward a Shrimp News International article that provided details of the situation.
The article said Florida Organic Aquaculture had retained Equity Partners HG, a Maryland Investment Banking company, to “seek an investor, partner or buyer.”
Fellsmere City Manager Jason Nunemaker confirmed the report, adding that the city is working with the aquaculture company to ensure the site plan and all other necessary documents are in place, in hopes of negotiations with potential investors or buyers.
Nunemaker has worked with company founder Morris since the entrepreneur first began considering the Fellsmere area.
“We have every confidence the shrimp farm will remain: perhaps with restructuring, in a different shape or form. We’re optimistic. Everybody likes to eat shrimp. The market is there,” Nunemaker said.
He also contended that, regardless of how the company regroups or restructures going forward, it has already had a positive impact on the Fellsmere community.  Local people have been employed, with the jobs grant funds paid to Florida Organic Aquaculture on the “back end” after workers were hired and in place for a specified period.
Also making a “huge impact,” said Nunemaker, is the natural gas line, which services the businesses along the western 512 corridor. Several businesses have already switched over and are saving “40 to 50 percent in energy costs. It’s sustainability, and [the aquaculture company] is credited with that.”

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