The first time Jack Finch harvested a prawn pond, well over half the water had been drained and hardly a handful of crustaceans were wiggling in the mesh of the sock net. It occurred to him that his experiment to add a little cash flow to his Trenton, Tenn., soybean, corn and wheat operation was about to fail miserably.

A few minutes later, as hundreds of prawns suddenly exploded into the net, he had another horrible thought. “How am I going to sell these things?”

With the sudden change of fortune, Finch was welcomed to the world of freshwater prawn farming. Four years later, he is still at it, although he attributes his success to equal amounts of luck and “figuring out the eccentricities of prawn farming.”

U.S. consumers are in love with shrimp and prawns. According to Jim Tidwell, coordinator of aquaculture programs, Kentucky State University, the United States is among the top three consumers of shrimp and shrimp products in the world. Prawns essentially are super-sized shrimp with a little sweeter and meatier taste than their little brothers.

The total U.S. market for shrimp is between $5 billion and $7 billion annually, according to Tidwell, most of which, about $4 billion, is imported. But despite economic incentives to increase domestic production — including a freshwater prawn pilot program funded by USDA and U.S. tobacco companies to replace displaced income from burley tobacco producers — prawn markets are proving hard to peel away from importers.

U.S. prawn producers “have to differentiate their product from importers, especially Asia,” Tidwell said. “It's difficult for us to compete on price alone. We need to produce some products that China and Thailand can't, whether we emphasize fresh product or whole animals.”

In that first year, Finch sold his harvest to the public in a one-day sale. “It worked okay, but I'm producing 5,600 pounds to 6,000 pounds of whole prawns annually and selling them for $5.50 to $8 a pound, depending on the grade and size. We just couldn't get enough people out here. We sold 1,700 pounds the first year.”

Finch loves the taste of the critters, but with a few thousand pounds left over after a one-day sale, there just isn't enough cocktail sauce and crab oil at the Trenton IGA to go around, even if Finch, his farmhands and their families were hungry enough to eat them. “We enjoyed having the people out, but I prefer to not have to do that to market them. I'm a farmer. I want to produce. I want to take them to a market.”

The third year, Finch processed the prawns in a plant in western Kentucky, and a buyer bought them frozen from a warehouse. But Finch's buyer told him that his customers, primarily Asian restaurants, preferred whole prawns. That's just what Finch wanted to hear.

“Whole prawns are something they're not going to get from an importer,” Tidwell said. “And even if they don't want the entire prawn (which is usually for presentation at the dinner table), a lot of them like to use the heads to make their seafood stocks.”

This year, the buyer will take delivery of whole prawns every three days from one of Finch's seven ponds during the 21-day harvest, which begins in late September. “He should have them within two or three hours of harvest. He can process them immediately,” said Finch, who prefers to keep his benefactor, and market, to himself.

In June, Finch will purchase 2-inch juvenile shrimp from Steve and Delores Fratesi, Lauren Farms, Leland, Miss., haul them to Tennessee and stock 18,000 into each 1-acre pond. Water temperature is crucial — a minimum of 70 degrees day and night.

The first 30 days, Finch feeds the ponds to create an algae bloom for juvenile feeding. In July, he begins feeding the adults, circling the ponds in his Ford Ranger equipped with a small shrimp-feeder from Stillwater Machine, Newbern, Ala. He blows a 32-percent protein, sinking catfish feed evenly across the ponds.

He feeds about 1,500 pounds of feed per acre annually and works about an hour a day each morning during the season. To keep the ponds green — a season-long requirement — Finch will throw in a few hay bales and cottonseed.

The pond water is too murky, and prawns too skittish, to get a read on how the wigglers are doing during the season, according to Finch. Since they are cannibalistic — saltwater prawns are not — lost prawns never make it to the surface. So he never knows until harvest how successful his season has been.

Prawns are too wary and quick to make a go of seine harvesting. So Finch's operation is set up to draw the prawns out with the pond water.

Close to the grassy bank of a 1-acre pond, the open end of a 10-inch drain pipe sticks out a few inches above the surface. This pipe maintains the water level in the pond and is connected to a swiveling elbow under the surface. To drain the pond, the drain pipe is swiveled until its opening is on the bottom of the pond.

The discharge end of the drain pipe configuration protrudes from the other side of the pond levee above a drainage ditch. At harvest, a 3-foot long, 3/8-inch, mesh sock net, shaped like a soda bottle is attached to the pipe.

“We just suck the prawns out of the pond,” Finch says. “The pond has considerable fall toward the drain pipe. It's shaped sort of like a bathtub. It's imperative that your pond bottoms are shaped smoothly. The prawns will hide in any crevice.”

When the ponds begin to drain, there are quite a few farmhands waiting for the action to begin, according to Finch. “The prawns march with the water. They don't mind their backs being out of the water. But you won't get 10 pounds of prawns until the last hour.

“When the water gets down to 10 feet square, we can turn the pumps back on and refurbish the water and put in another 2 inches real quick. It seems to back flush them and it pulls them right out.”

About the same time, the farmhands grab leaf rakes and push the roiling sea of prawns toward the middle of the sump. “In the last 30 minutes, you get a lot of work from your yardmen.”

The pond bottom provides solid, though slippery, footing for the rakers, who slide their feet carefully along the bottom. Finch has constructed a 15-foot by 15-foot concrete pad around the drain pipe for firmer footing when the real work begins.

After a zippered sock net is filled with 50 to 75 pounds of prawns, it's swapped out with another net and dumped into 300-gallon, round cattle troughs filled with chilled water.

The cold water kills the prawns, preserving their taste and quality. The troughs, which sit on a two-axle bumper trailer, are covered by a tarp and pulled by a pickup truck to the buyer. “It's pretty low tech,” Finch said.

An excellent year will yield about 7,000 prawns per pond and about 1,000 pounds per acre. “That's like making 200-bushel corn around here. If I make somewhere between 700 and 800 pounds, I'm happy. Around 600 pounds is my breakeven yield for my market.”

Finch notes that prawns and shrimp “are the same animal. When you go below a count of 25 per pound, they are generally referred to as prawns. Above that, they are shrimp. Last year, my harvest weight was 9.8 prawns per pound.”

Prawns have a different texture than shrimp, too, noted Finch. “As they get bigger, they start tasting more like lobster.”

Each of Finch's seven 1-acre ponds generates about $3,700 an acre in revenue annually. He estimates returns of about 10 percent per year for a four-month season. That's not bad for about an hour's worth of work each morning.

And at the end of the day during harvest season, a half-dozen giant prawns, boiled and dipped in butter, are a scrumptious fringe benefit.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com