State's Freshwater Prawn Harvest Looks Promising for Seasoned and New Producers
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Things are looking good for Tennessee’s freshwater prawn producers, both in terms of this year’s upcoming harvest and for the industry as a whole. Prawns will be harvested in late September, and Tennessee producers are feeling good both about this year’s yields and about realizing their place in the state’s parade of traditional fall crops.
“There are producers who have been in business long enough to provide a dependable, stable crop,” says Rob Beets, marketing specialist with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “Lots of people know what prawns are now, and producers have established relationships with communities, restaurants and processors. The producers know they’ll have somebody to buy their prawns, and their customers can depend on the farmer to produce it.”
Tennessee farmers first plunged into the freshwater prawn business in the 1990s. Prawn pioneers faced raising a crop—similar to marine shrimp—they’d never even heard of, and worse, that the public had never heard of, either.
“There was quite a learning curve for people who had been raising tobacco, or hogs, or any number of traditional farm commodities,” says Beets. “One thing that was appealing was that the timetable for growing the crop—starting in May and harvesting in late September—was easy to relate to, and so was digging ponds.
“But there was a lot to learn about how to raise this animal, and about how the industry was going to work. Farmers found out that prawns were very sensitive to their environment; a neighbor’s dog who’d just been dipped for fleas could kill a whole pond of prawns by taking swim, for example. Who would have guessed that? And as with any new venture, some people found they had a knack for this business while others ultimately realized it wasn’t the crop for them.”
Jane Corbin, of Harris Aquafarm in Springfield, was in that first wave of Tennesseans to jump into the untested waters of prawn farming. “We’ve been in the business long enough that we can actually say we have customers who’ve been coming to the harvest for years,” says Corbin. This will be the Corbin’s sixth year harvesting prawns.
Corbin offers her catch straight from the pond bank as they are harvested. “You can’t get fresher than that,” says Corbin. “When you have the opportunity to get a product this fresh, it gives you the most time to pursue the most options. This is a once a year opportunity, so you can cook some up right away, save some on ice for a few days, and then freeze the rest so you can enjoy them until next year.”
Whatever amount Corbin does not sell fresh is processed, frozen and available at the farm until her supply runs out. The veteran producer also sells to several local restaurants and hotels in Nashville area, including Capitol Grille, Vanderbilt Marriott, Cabanas, Sunset Grill and Midtown Café. The Corbins hope their ponds will yield at least the amount they harvested last year— about 2,000 pounds in three ponds. Corbin says she has seen some huge prawns already, so they expect to have some “good, big ones.”
New producers like Warren Wilson of Wilson Farms in Decaturville have also fared well this year. Wilson expects to have between 300 to 600 pounds for his first year of prawn production. His experience has been positive enough that Wilson has another pond under construction and expects to double his harvest for next year. Wilson plans to harvest his prawns on September 30, offering them fresh at the pond bank while they last.
Prawns are raised in controlled, chemical-free manmade ponds. Tiny “seed” prawns are placed in the carefully tended ponds in May and then harvested in late September and early October when the ponds are drained. Mature prawns are very large, up to 8 and even 4 to the pound, a result of being grown in a pampered environment with high quality feed. The average yield for a one-acre pond is close to 1,000 pounds of prawns.
Prawns are completely interchangeable with marine shrimp in recipes, with some culinary and nutritional benefits. Taste tests have shown that prawns actually have a more favorable taste than marine shrimp and have been compared to the sweet flavor and meaty texture of lobster. Prawns also have particularly hard shells, which create a more flavorful stock. They also freeze well and have no “mud vein” to be removed, so preparation is also simpler than for saltwater shrimp.
An interesting aspect of this relatively new crop, says Beets, is that “the best place to find prawns is still on the farm. Prawn producers have found that the best way to bring prawns and customers together is right on the farm at harvest time. Some producers have cars lined up waiting to get to the pond, where they can watch the harvesting take place, which is really pretty interesting. There’s a sense of anticipation, because nobody really knows how many or how big the prawns will be until the nets are thrown and the prawns are exposed.
”And of course, if you’re right there at the pond, you get the benefit of the freshest prawns at a direct-from-the-farm price. Just be sure you call ahead before heading out to a prawn farm so that you’ll know the harvest is happening on schedule or that there are still prawns available.”
For more complete information for nutrition, storage and handling of prawns, or for information about prawn producers, visit the TDA Market Development Web site at picktnproducts.org and click on “Food and Beverages,” then click on “Freshwater Shrimp.” Visit the Web site also for a list of farmers markets or to learn more about other Tennessee farm products, events and crop festivals.