Raising prawns

By EMILY COAKLEY, The Herald-Sun
September 25, 2006   8:26 pm

CEDAR GROVE -- Joe Thompson added something new to his 78-acre farm this year: a two-acre pond full of jumbo shrimp, more deliciously known as prawns.

His is the only crop in the Piedmont region, and this weekend he's planning to harvest them.

For Thompson, who used to grow tobacco, his shrimp farm isn't just about making a living, but also about learning.

"I didn't know if I could do it or not," he said.

This month, he has been working hard to make sure his harvest shows up on local restaurant menus and in grocery stores. He'll also be selling the prawns directly from his farm.

The difference between shrimp and prawns is largely a matter of name, said Dennis DeLong, an aquaculture extension specialist with N.C. State University.

In some parts of the world, people call what we know as shrimp "prawns." In other regions, prawns are large shrimp, or shrimp grown in freshwater.

"These will be relatively large," DeLong said of Thompson's crop.

The prawn season began in the middle of June for Thompson. That's when he put 28,000 juvenile prawns into the pond. He described the underwater cash crop as looking like matchsticks "but half as long."

They settled at the bottom of the dark pond, and for more than a month, he could only feed them and wait.

"It was the worst six weeks of my life," Thompson said.

He didn't know if the prawns survived, or if he was feeding an empty pond.

Then, DeLong found a few prawns on a visit to the farm.

"I've had a ball since then," Thompson said.

In early September, many prawns had grown to the length of Thompson's palm, and he expected them to grow more by the end of the month.

Because the prawns went into the pond late, Thompson doesn't think they'll be as big as they could be. But that doesn't bother him this year.

"I was concerned more or less about getting them right," he said.

Though the turtles and cranes have sampled the prawns, Thompson hopes to harvest nearly 1,200 pounds.

His pond, which is 9 feet deep, is connected to a concrete catch basin by a large pipe. When the time comes, he'll drain the pond and scoop the prawns from the catch basin.

For many years, Thompson grew tobacco on his farm, which he and his wife, Geraldine, bought in 1979. The tobacco crops stopped in 1998 after he had hip surgery.

He and his son talked about what to do next, and then he came upon the idea of prawns.

Why prawns?

"I'm trying to get in something no one else is in," he said.

There aren't many prawn producers in the state.

"This is a niche marketing effort," DeLong said.

For the last four years, Thompson has been learning about raising prawns by attending seminars, doing research and visiting other producers.

This new venture is easier on him, physically speaking, than tobacco farming was. To feed his prawns, for example, Thompson attaches a leaf blower to the back of a tractor. He drives the tractor on an 8-foot wide dirt path -- he calls it his racetrack -- around the pond, and uses the blower to shoot feed over the water.

He's had some help embarking on this new adventure, including from the Orange County Cooperative Extension office.

Thompson praised the office's Karen McAdams and Mike Lanier for helping him start the farm and market his product.

"They have really been there for me," he said.

His idea was a new one for McAdams.

"I didn't even know if he could do it in the Piedmont area. I didn't know anything about it," McAdams said about prawn farms. "Fortunately there were some other people working on it in the state."

McAdams and Thompson visited a prawn farm in Virginia. They also have been in contact with the handful of other prawn producers in the state.

Changing a farm's products is never easy, McAdams said, and requires hard work and capital. But Thompson has made a great effort, she said.

"He's worked really hard; he's enthusiastic. I certainly hope he'll be successful," McAdams said.

Lanier has visited local restaurants with Thompson, offering samples.

Thompson's slogan is, "You had the rest, now try the best." He'll sell the prawns from his home.

"I think it's great," Lanier said of Thompson's farm. "I believe we need to produce a lot more local foods."

During the off-season, Thompson plans to add more ponds. And next year, the prawns will go into the water at the end of May.

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