Perspectives Online

Raising Crustaceans. Tobacco farmland becomes a farm pond for a freshwater shrimp business. By Natalie Hampton

Wiseman, Frinsko, Johnny Barbee and Doug Barbee (above, from left) examine juvenile prawns from the nursery tanks before moving them to ponds.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

On a Johnston County farm where tobacco has grown for 30 years, there was no tobacco crop this year. Instead, the owners - father-and-son team Doug and Johnny Barbee and their partner, Gene Wiseman - turned their full attention to a new enterprise: freshwater prawns.

The giant Malaysian prawns, or large shrimp, are grown in freshwater ponds on land that once supported tobacco, the state's cash crop. When the prawns are fully grown in the fall, the ponds are drained and the prawns harvested.

It took a great deal of entrepreneurial spirit to bring the business to life, as well as expertise provided by Mike Frinsko, area specialized aquaculture agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Based in Trenton, Frinsko provides technical assistance to aquaculture businesses throughout southeastern North Carolina.

Wiseman first got interested in raising prawns when his wife called him one day to see a news story about an Illinois grower raising giant prawns miles from the ocean and netting about $8 a pound.

Wiseman's curiosity led him to his rural neighbors, the Barbees, who had considered aquaculture in the past and still had an interest in it. The partners began their research, talking with various experts from across the country, visiting a Mississippi producer raising prawns and, of course, tasting the product for themselves.

Then, nearly three years ago, Wiseman contacted Frinsko for his technical assistance and training. With Frinsko's help, DJ&W Shrimp Farm built its first commercial production pond and began what is now their diversification into aquaculture. The Barbees are responsible for the day-to-day management and operation of the farm, while Wiseman is involved in marketing the product.

Gene Wiseman (front) and Mike Frinsko check the water chemistry at a prawn pond.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
Initially, the partners bought juvenile prawns from a Mississippi supplier, stocked them in the ponds and then grew them to market size. For the past two years, they successfully harvested mature prawns after a 112-day summer growing season, but this year they hope to extend the season to 140 days, producing many prawns in the eight-to-10-per-pound size.

The operation now boasts three 2-acre ponds, following critical specifications from Frinsko, adapted from extension colleagues at Mississippi State University. And this year for the first time, the farm is raising its own juvenile shrimp in 12-foot diameter tanks located in a former tobacco greenhouse.

"We are excited and very enthusiastic about the accomplishments here," Frinsko said. "This is an opportunity for diversification, but it's not a silver bullet for everyone. Depending on a farmer's land, water resources and temperament, it may or may not be a good fit. That's not to mention the effort needed for market development."

Johnny Barbee says the time he once spent in tobacco fields is now devoted to the prawns, and he has learned much about raising the crustaceans. For example, at the beginning of the production season, the ponds have to be limed and fertilized. Liming ensures that the water acidity stays in balance, while fertilizing with cottonseed meal produces small, but nutritious, natural planktonic foods, essential for the prawns' early growth.

The nursery, located in the former tobacco greenhouse, has provided another set of challenges. The post-larval prawns arrive weighing about .009 grams each. Johnny and Doug Barbee watched over the 150,000 juvenile prawns from April to May, ensuring their development to the .3 gram juvenile size, ready for stocking in the ponds

As the summer progresses, daily monitoring of oxygen becomes critical, as well managing the algae blooms. Algal blooms produce oxygen during the day through photosynthesis, but may outstrip the nighttime supply if they are overabundant. Johnny has learned to keep all this in balance, ensuring a healthy environment for his crop. In August, for example, he runs aerators more often to keep the water mixed, eliminating low oxygen zones near the pond bottom where the prawns live.

A juvenile prawn
Photo by Becky Kirkland
During harvest, the ponds are drained and the food-sized prawns follow the water outflow where they are essentially self-harvested and collected in a concrete harvest tank adjacent to the pond. They are netted live and quickly removed for sale and processing on the farm.

"Gene Wiseman, who markets the prawns, is very entrepreneurial. He is creative and has a bold vision for DJ&W based on his past successes in marketing and business," Frinsko said. When the prawns are harvested, many are sold - both live and on ice - directly to waiting fans. The remaining prawns are frozen for market and sold later during the fall. Last year's production was sold out by Thanksgiving.

Wiseman, who markets the prawns, has brought samples for several years to "Aqua Days" at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh. There he found Asian clients who were familiar with the product and anxious for a chance to purchase them live. Their enthusiasm has been so great that on the first harvest day last year, a group arrived at the farm to purchase prawns and take them home in tanks.

The market for prawns is somewhat different than that for saltwater shrimp, which are often smaller, says Wiseman, who is also on the board of directors for the National Freshwater Shrimp Growers Association. He describes the prawns as being more appropriate for the "white tablecloth market." Several restaurant chefs have told Wiseman they are impressed with the prawns' flavor, even after freezing.

"With Extension's help, DJ&W Shrimp's attention to detail has paid off," Frinsko said. "The partners have continued to innovate, being open-minded and unafraid to ask questions, which, in turn improves their operation. By adding the nursery system this year, they have set themselves up as a potential area provider of juvenile prawns for other interested producers.

"This is a classic example of the extension mission at work, bringing research-based knowledge to the public," he said.

The partners plan to expand next year, adding six to eight more ponds in the former tobacco fields, as well as other attractions to draw tourists.

Wiseman and the Barbees hope this will be the year they turn a profit when the prawns are harvested.

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