Every farmer knows those crucial moments when factors beyond their control shape profits or losses for the coming year, and the stress they can bring.
For Don Maloney of Fairfield County, those moments are consistent from late May through around mid September while he is growing freshwater prawns (or shrimp) unseen underwater at the bottom of three ponds on his farm.
“If you want to invest in antacid between June and September do this. Antacid is my dessert after every meal that time of year. I’ve heard the stories about how you invest all this money and drain the pond and nothing alive comes out,” Maloney said. “There can be devastating losses with this. I like to gamble and this is definitely gambling.”
Don’s Prawns got its start when Maloney and his family moved from Michigan to Ohio for his work and bought a 40-acre farm in 1997. On his drives to and from work, Maloney listened to talk radio and around 2001 he learned about freshwater prawns.
“I’d work to late afternoon and early evening and listened to NPR radio on my drives. They had a talk radio show in the evenings with an agricultural show on Wednesdays. ODNR announced that they would allow freshwater prawns in Ohio for a couple of reasons. They need brackish water to procreate and they die at temperatures below 55 degrees so it can’t be an invasive species in Ohio. At 65 degrees they stop growing. It is a tropical species,” Maloney said. “That radio show planted the seed. A couple of times a year after that I would go to the Ohio Aquaculture Association website and research things a little bit. Then in 2008 or 2009, I was having a bad day at work and I went to the Extension office and asked what I could do with this kind of acreage. I was told I couldn’t really do a commodity, but I could do fruit or maybe aquaculture. Then it snapped into my brain about the freshwater prawn.”
Soon after, a pipeline came through the Maloney property, which provided some startup capital and he built his first prawn pond.
“We put in a small pond at first to make mistakes on a small scale. I got the Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District involved right away. The contractor and I designed what we thought would work and SWCD worked with that right from the start,” Maloney said. “We built the pond from scratch and it cost a lot for what it was. It was around $20,000 for the pond and the pit and everything to get running. We put in other ponds later for less money once we knew what we were doing. For less than half the cost later we put in bigger ponds. We were just learning the first time and did it better after that. What you need is a good spring water supply and the right topography.”
In terms of the setup, the pond needs to be at a higher elevation than a nearby concrete pit connected by a drain line from the pond. At harvest time, the water is drained from the pond to the pit and the prawns follow the water flow to the pit where they can more easily be gathered. The pit has screens over drains that allow the water to flow out, but not the prawns.
In addition to the pond design, numerous other details needed to be ironed out to get things going.
“We had to find out where to get the prawns and where to get feed, and get the equipment to test for dissolved oxygen and pH. There are only three or four places in the U.S. to get the post larvae prawns. There is a place in New London by Lake Erie that distributes them,” Maloney
said. “We have gone through three or four feed vendors and now we get a high protein sinking shrimp feed — it has to sink because the prawns live on the bottom — from Zeigler Feeds in Pennsylvania. We also added aerators later on to maintain the oxygen levels in the water. We have one per pond and we run them at night and shut them off during the day.”
According to water temperatures, the young prawns arrive in late May or early June.
“They bring the prawns in a big truck in late May early June,” he said. “They are translucent and about size of a small minnow. You can hardly see them in the water. The first year we did around 10,000 post-larvae prawns.”
From there, the prawns need consistent and regular feed.
“Prawns are territorial and cannibalistic. They also molt and that is when they are most vulnerable,” he said. “You typically expect a 50% yield.”
Early on, Maloney saw the need for improving the feeding. He was carrying a 40-pound sack of feed and throwing the feed into the water.
“I was manually throwing feed into the pond, which was a lot of labor and it was not distributing the feed consistently so the prawns would have to move to find it and then they would fight or eat each other,” Maloney said. “I needed to get the feed to them so they wouldn’t have to move.”
He discussed the problem with a farmer neighbor, Jay Picklesimer, and they ended up designing the “shrimp shooter” — an old leaf blower with a hopper from a lawn fertilizer broadcaster attached to it, mounted on the front of an ATV. The leaf blower shoots out the feed evenly across the pond while Maloney drives the ATV around the perimeter.
With a 2014 Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant, he tested the shrimp shooter by comparing it to a separate pond fed manually. With the shrimp shooter, the percentage of small prawns decreased from 61% to 35%, the medium sized prawns increased from 25% to 45% and large prawns increased from 14% to 20%. Overall yield increased 17% with the shrimp shooter compared to hand feeding and profits increased significantly because of the increased percentages of larger, higher value prawns.
Feeding rates have to be adjusted significantly from the beginning of the season to the end and too much feed leads to algal blooms in the ponds that can deplete the oxygen in the water and clog up the drainage system.
“We factor in 20% loss of prawns and we calculate how many pounds we are going to get and we know it is a 3:1 feed ratio. We figure out how much feed we need for the season. We throw out a casting net occasionally to catch a few to see how they are doing but we mostly have to assume how much feed we need,” Maloney said. “We guess how much we’ll need and feed based upon their assumed growth rate through the season. We feed every day. At the beginning of the season, though we only feed five pounds per acre pond. By the end we are feeding 48 pounds per acre pond.”
Most of the increase in prawn size occurs right before the harvest.
“It is around 110 days from when we put them in the pond until the harvest. The vast majority of the growth is in the last three four weeks of the season. You want to get them as large as possible before the water temp drops to 55 degrees because that water temperature kills them. At around 65 degrees their metabolism drops and they don’t grow much. In a year like this that was cool, we get smaller prawns. They grow more when it is warmer. We have never had it get too hot,” Maloney said. “We place our orders for them in January and we want them in the pond as quickly as possible in the spring once the water is warm enough — 70 degrees or higher. It is a dance, there is no question about it.”
Acidic pH, low oxygen, low temperatures, and the introduction of predatory fish (especially bass) can all lead to very unpleasant surprises at harvest. The entire harvest takes place in two weekends — one with a pond-side sale where customers come to the farm to get the shrimp. A crew of around 12 local FFA members is hired to come help as the ponds are drained. The prawns are gathered in nets, put in an aerator tank to clean, put on ice for at least 10 minutes, sorted, packaged and sold. A second harvest is planned before the Fish and Shrimp Festival in Urbana where they sell the prawns in two-pound packages for $12 a pound.
“When you drain the ponds, you get 99% of the shrimp in the last 1% of water in the pond,” he said. “You invest a lot and you can make money, but you can also lose a lot of money with this.”
After some initial success, Maloney got some Farm Service Agency microloans and expanded Don Prawn’s to the current two one-acre ponds and one half-acre pond of production.
“Last spring, 40,000 prawns were put in the ponds and every year harvest is different depending on different factors, but the goal is around 1,000 pounds,” he said. “I can probably produce a lot more prawns than that but I have to be able to sell them. I am only licensed to sell prawns whole on ice. If I want to do anything else I have to get HACCP certified. I’d have to get a commercial freezer and take other steps. I could do this 24-7, 365 if I wanted because the market is out there. I think it could be a full time thing but for now I still work off the farm and this is a great way to have some supplemental income with a fairly modest investment.
“It is fun. I like shrimp and I love producing a product that is sustainable. There is a wow factor telling people you raise freshwater shrimp in Ohio. Four to five billion dollars go out of this country every year for buying seafood and most of that is for shrimp. It is a good product and people want local seafood and it is a good way to keep local dollars right here.”
For more, visit: donsprawns.com or on Facebook at facebook.com/donsprawns.