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Special Feature: Prawn stars
A growing number of freshwater prawn farmers want their sustainable crop at center plate
By Steve Coomes
November 08, 2010
In late September, John Relyea's Walstonburg, N.C., farm was a meteorological madhouse. A tropical depression had dropped the first half of a predicted foot of rain, and a cold front threatening 40-degree lows was just days away. To ensure the freshwater prawns in his ponds wouldn't die from the sudden temperature change, he enacted an emergency harvest.
"Believe it or not, crazy as it is, we're really excited and the adrenaline is flowing," says Relyea, owner of Crazy Claws Prawn Co., and the current president of the United States Freshwater Prawn Growers Association (USFPGA). "We're excited because we expect a good year."
Relyea anticipated pulling several thousand pounds of Malaysian freshwater prawns from his ponds for live sale to Asian restaurants in New York City and Canada, and fresh sale to local consumers. Like most other U.S. growers, his prawns sell for $8 to $9 per-pound whole and $15 to $16 for tails only.
Crazy Claws is one of an estimated 200 U.S. farms that, according to a 2009 Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch report on the U.S. freshwater prawn industry, farmers produce about 200,000 pounds of shellfish annually - less than 1 percent of the total shrimp and prawns consumed in the United States each year. But according to Craig Upstrom, many of those farms aren't commercial producers.
"There is a tremendous number of people with little one-tenth acre ponds that grow about 75 pounds of prawns a year just for themselves," says Upstrom, whose prawn hatchery, Aquaculture of Texas, is the nation's sole supplier. Commercial producers working 1- to 2-acre ponds "are the guys doing this to make a profit. Their number is growing."
In the United States, the freshwater farming of Malaysian giant river prawns ( Macrobrachium rosenbergii ) began in Hawaii more than 40 years ago, but over time Texas became the industry's hatchery hub. Prawn farming has expanded slowly with most ponds located east of the Mississippi River and stretching from Ohio to Florida. But with increasing interest in local and sustainable food supplies - especially in the wake of the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - this underexposed delicacy is gaining more attention.
Chefs are trumpeting its virtues (it's locally produced, sustainable and lobster-like in taste and texture) to customers looking for flavor adventures, says John Varanese, chef-owner of Varanese restaurant in Louisville, Ky. While he's sold freshwater prawn specials off and on for eight years, he says locals know little about the creatures even though they're cultivated 20 minutes outside the city.
"No doubt a lot of this is a lack of consumer education and awareness," says Varanese. "But that's the social responsibility part for me. I feel we need to educate people."
Prawn farmers are in the same position, but strapped for resources, says Ron Pigue Jr., owner of Delta Crawfish in Paragould, Ark.
"Getting the word out there is tough because the industry's so small," says Pigue, who also farms crawfish and catfish. "If the marketing ever got to a national level, [business] would be really good."
Outside of North Carolina, where multiple growers have organized into a marketing and sales cooperative, advertising is typically minimal. To announce the mid-September prawn harvest at Crystal Bridge Fish in Ballardsville, Ky., owner Rocky Allen mounted printed cardboard signs along the road
to his farm.
"That's the marketing plan," says Allen. Though Crystal Bridge doesn't have one, many prawn farms do have websites. "I sell all my shrimp to individuals who know this happens every year. They're my best customers and they always support me."
But Crystal Bridge's customer list does not include restaurants or retailers.
"I don't want to put any dependence upon another business to sustain me," he adds.
Pigue echoes Allen's
"It all boils down to the purist chefs and purist restaurants who want a sustainable product: Will they buy it all?" he asks. He's concerned "they're going to have a bad sales week, panic and call for (cheaper) prawns from Malaysia" and leave him holding fresh product.
Upstrom says years ago some Kentucky growers sold prawns to a supermarket chain, but because the wholesale price needed to make a profit was double of what was asked for saltwater shrimp, consumers didn't buy much.
If he can get to the supply before it's gone, chef John Currence, owner of City Grocery Restaurant in Oxford, Miss., will buy 150 to 200 pounds of freshwater prawns this year. Every harvest finds him lining up with "farmgate buyers" to get his restaurant's share.
"When people showing up on the banks at harvest will buy up everything the farmers have, it's a tiny
challenge to get supplies," says Currence, winner of the 2009 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South. "I'm about like anyone else in that I have to get into the fistfight of it if I want it."
The limited number of farms isn't the only factor minimizing supplies: Growing seasons are short. Since prawns die in water colder than 55 degrees F, farmers must wait for the June sun to warm ponds to 70 degrees F before plunging the dime-sized juveniles into the water. And once the water warms and the feeding begins, the resulting algae bloom cloaks the prawns in inky murk until harvest 100 days later.
"You definitely walk by faith and not by sight when you do this thing," says Allen, shaking his head ruefully while watching one of his ponds drain without producing shrimp. "You have no idea what you're going to get until you drain the pond, and this one's dead. Years past we got big ones out of there." (By contrast, his tilapia harvest from the same pond
That the entire process is all natural and sustainable won it a spot on the Seafood Watch best choice list this year. That long-sought designation, Relyea says, should help elevate freshwater prawns' visibility.
"We've got the best prawns in the world, but China doesn't want to hear that," Relyea says. "We use strictly grain-based feed, no antibiotics or animal byproducts. In North Carolina we pump pure water out of aquifers underground, and we conserve and transfer that water from pond to pond. We do what's right and you can taste it in our prawns."
Contributing writer Steve Coomes lives in Louisville, Ky.