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Published: Sep 29, 2006 12:30 AM
Modified: Sep 30, 2006 08:11 AM

Farmers ridin' high on the prawns

Douglas Corbett, center, and Harold Grady, right, size up one of the first prawns harvested on Joe Thompson's farm in Cedar Grove. Thompson harvested 829 pounds of prawns from a 2-acre pond Thursday.
Staff Photo by Ted Richardson
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CEDAR GROVE - ******


A City & State photo caption Friday with a story on prawn farming incorrectly identified one of the men pictured. Dewey Corbett is helping harvest the prawns.


Erika Harris thought she'd never see the day her parents would be selling seafood -- freshwater prawns -- under a tent in front of their Piedmont home in northern Orange County.

"This is all new," said Harris, standing near a baby pool filled with baskets of the chilled translucent-looking crustaceans with peach tails and bright blue claws.

"This is not the farm I remember. We'd have dirty tobacco-gummy hands," she said.

"Prawn, shrimp, seafood --not where I expected for this to go," added Harris, who drove from Fayetteville with three orders for her mother, Geraldine Thompson, to fill.

Geraldine and her husband Joe Thompson are operating one of six new prawn farms in North Carolina this year.

The Malaysian prawns -- closer cousins to lobster than shrimp -- are a tropical crustacean that can be raised in North Carolina ponds from June to late September, when they've grown to about 9 inches long.

Prawn farms are fairly new to the state. The first farm, DJ & W in Johnston County, has been in business four years.

That one has expanded from one pond to eight and is now supplying juvenile prawns to the new farmers.

Increasing the number of prawn farms is good for all those who are raising them, said Gene Wiseman, a co-owner of DJ & W, who was helping the Thompsons on Thursday afternoon.

"We're in the process of forming a co-op now so we have one identity," Wiseman said.

Many of the prawns grown in the United States are grown in Mississippi, Illinois and Kentucky, said Mike Frinsko, an aquaculture specialist with N.C. State University and the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service.

The prawns can actually do better in North Carolina, Frinsko said, because the water is slightly cooler and the prawns spend more energy growing and less reproducing.

He expects the industry to grow here.

"Since 25 percent of all seafood consumed in the country is shrimp, we know there is a demand for a fresh, high-quality shrimp product," Frinsko said.

It also can pay better than many traditional crops, including tobacco. An acre can yield about 1,000 pounds of prawns, and a profit of about $4,000, he said.

That sounded good to Douglas Corbett, who said tobacco brought in $2,800 an acre.

In waders up to his hips, Corbett helped his friends bring in their harvest.

As the sandy-bottom pond drained through a pipe into a cement harvesting bin, about four dozen friends and family members netted prawns, carried bags of ice, chilled them and helped the Thompsons sell them.

In one long day, the harvesting was over.

But prawn farming isn't as easy as throwing the young crustaceans into the pond, Frinsko said.

The oxygen levels and algae blooms in the water must be carefully monitored, along with the ammonia and alkalinity. If the oxygen level drops or the temperature dips below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the prawns could die.

"This isn't for everybody, and marketing is key," Frisco said.

Locally speaking

Joe Thompson pulled several pounds from the water a few weeks ago and took them to area restaurants for sampling and sales.

Weaver Street Market in Carrboro will be selling the Thompsons' prawns this weekend. "Shrimp" and grits will be a special on the menu at its restaurant, Panzanella, said Linda Fullwood, the co-op's marketing manager.

Elaine's on Franklin and Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill and Four Square Restaurant in Durham also will be preparing dishes with Thompsons' prawns this weekend, Joe Thompson said.

Ron Roots, who owns Sassafras at Stovall, a fine-dining restaurant north of Oxford, said his chef will be serving a prawn and sherry bisque tonight.

By late afternoon, the last prawn-filled container was chilling in the baby pool.

The yield was smaller than expected -- 892 pounds from a 2-acre pond.

Joe Thompson and those from the Cooperative Extension Service who came to help think that small baitfish ate a lot of the food put in for the prawns.

Thompson said he'll figure out how to keep the fish out and go ahead with plans to build and stock a 4-acre pond next summer.

"Even though my production was low, I have the satisfaction of doing it," Thompson said.

"Just watch me next year!" he said.

Staff writer Cheryl Johnston Sadgrove can be reached at 932-2005 or
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