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Freshwater prawn harvest draws crowds to Kentucky
By TIM THORNBERRY
Kentucky Correspondent

WINCHESTER, Ky. — Fresh seafood is often associated with upscale restaurants or locations near the ocean, but Kentuckians have been able to get fresh seafood each September when freshwater prawns are harvested.

Prawns are a shrimp-like native of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. They’re larger than average shrimp and have a texture similar to lobster.

As more producers have turned to this aquaculture venture, prawn has become more popular. Farmers have turned their ponds into breeding grounds for prawns as well as other forms of seafood like tilapia, an African freshwater fish that is similar to the region’s crappie.

Angela Caporelli, Kentucky Depart-ment of Agriculture’s (KDA) aquaculture coordinator and marketing specialist, sees tremendous growth potential for U.S. aquaculture - not only economically but from a safety standpoint, too.

“Aquaculture is the fastest growing sector of agriculture worldwide today with imports in the United States being second only to oil,” she said.

“U.S. aquaculture is regulated by several oversight agencies including FDA, NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service), Department of Commerce, USDA, EPA, and Fish and Wildlife - to name a few. The regulatory oversight does not allow U.S. aquaculture food, fish or ponds to be treated with any antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides and enter into the food market without a very long depuration time.

“Buying locally grown aquaculture products gives the consumer a sense of security that these fish were not contaminated or treated with substances that are not allowed in the U.S. and that purchase will support local farmers and communities.”

During harvest, many producers host events to show customers how they produce these products.

“This is the only time of year that they’re available fresh,” said Caporelli. “Most of the growers have pond-side sales. You can go to the farm and buy prawn fresh out of the ponds – fresh tastes better. Then there’s the whole ambience of going out to the farm, seeing how farmers raise the food you eat, and supporting them by buying their products.”

Joe and Shelia McCord of Winchester host an annual festival and are considered aquaculture veterans with eight years of experience in the prawn business.

“Our children are the sixth generation to live on our 556-acre farm. We raise tobacco and beef cattle, but Joe wanted to try something different,” Shelia said. “We heard of a nearby harvest, so we went there to see how it was done. And Joe said we could do that.”

The McCords started with one half-acre pond and have steadily increased production to six ponds. They have converted a tobacco greenhouse into a shrimp nursery. They will actually have pond-side harvest dates each Saturday until the end of the September.

“We average about 300 pounds per pond and have a certified processing facility, so we can freeze what we don’t sell during the harvest and sell them all year-round,” Shelia said.

The McCords also sell vegetables and have used the prawn business as a supplement to help diversify their farm operation even further, though it can be a tough market to break into.

“We have a lot of repeat customers and have had more interest this year from local restaurants, but many people still look for a less expensive imported product,” Shelia said. “The fact is our product tastes better and is better for you with no fat and less cholesterol. It takes a marketing effort to make this work. It will never take the place of tobacco unless more is done to develop the market. We couldn’t have done this so far had it not been for the help from the Department of Ag and the people at Kentucky State University.”

Endless possibilities
The most popular U.S. seafood is shrimp, which creates a number of possibilities for local growers.

Overall seafood imports are estimated at nearly $10 billion each year with only $3 billion exported, creating a large trade deficit. Production growth in Kentucky has been aided by an “aquaculture plan” that was developed by the state’s Aquaculture Task Force, which addresses the production possibilities; marketing and promotional needs; regulatory considerations; research, extension, educational needs; and financial needs.

A report by the task force said, “Kentucky is well positioned to expand its aquaculture production with a suitable climate, soil and water resources, and an existing aquaculture research and extension program … seven potential species have been identified as currently holding the best production possibilities for Kentucky These species are freshwater shrimp, trout, catfish, largemouth bass, paddlefish, hybrid striped bass and baitfish.”

The state program has been led through efforts by the General Assembly, which during the 2000 session, appropriated $4 million for aquaculture infrastructure needs; Kentucky State University, which has one of the most formidable aquaculture programs in the U.S.; KDA and the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

For a complete prawn harvest schedule, visit the KDA website at www.kyagr.com and select Aquaculture from the pull-down menu. Prawn recipes are also available on the website.

This farm news was published in the Sept. 13, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

9/13/2006