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Oklahoman diversifies small agriculture operation with prawn

By Brian Brus | The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – The harsh economy is a good reason to diversify small agriculture operations, not just hold steady and wait for an upswing, Cashion prawn farmer Jeremy Eaton said.

“In the times we’re in, people are looking for the best way to stretch their dollar,” Eaton said. “And it’s juxtaposed with saving the environment … and the family farm. The farming industry mantra is ‘get big or get out.’

“Producing and eating locally helps us be green, or ecologically minded, and support local growers at the same time. And at a price that’s probably going to be less than if they ship it in from somewhere where they’ve slashed and burned forests,” he said. “It’s a feel-good thing for me, and a way to develop supplemental income, so now is definitely a good time to do this.”

This is Eaton’s second year to raise freshwater shrimp. He entered the business last year with the help of an Oklahoma Producer Grant from the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The entire production area takes up about three acres of his 160-acre family farm. Before prawn, Eaton focused on wheat and about 50 head of sheep. If he gets the full yield expected from 10,000 shrimp, he could net about $5,000.

Prawn has very little difference in taste from its saltwater cousin, although Eaton said the decapods are slightly sweeter because of the environment. Otherwise they’re treated the same in cooking, and sell 10-12 per pound.

Eaton’s crop is about half that size now, but they’ll go through a final growth spurt and be ready for harvest next month. Eaton said he was happy with water quality, oxygen levels and prawn growth rates during the first season, and this year he worked to improve defenses against predation – foam floaters, for example, to keep other animals from dipping into his pools for free meals.

He personally picked up his prawn in May from a Texas hatchery, just a three-hour drive away, so he’s got a low overhead in transportation costs. He feeds them readily available commercial catfish pellets and harvests in September when they reach full adult size.

He had heard about prawn farming like many of his peers, “but no one ever really made a move in that direction,” Eaton said. “I decided to actually look into it.”

Most commercial prawn ponds in other states are converted from failed catfish farming, he said. Oklahoma producers don’t have that infrastructure already in place, but most farms do have small ponds of their own that are the right size for easy management – “Upkeep dovetails really well with your other livestock chores,” he said.

And on the sales side of the equation, shrimp do not need to be processed to be sold in small amounts; they can be sold directly to the public for consumption, he said.

“Shrimp are a healthy food that customers recognize and value. They can be sold live, maximizing freshness and quality while avoiding the cost and regulatory hurdles of processing,” he said.

That, in conjunction with the down economy, will ultimately drive the success of small prawn operations, he said. “

And my children are the fourth generation to grow up on our farm. It’s important to me for them to be able to farm, so we have to look at alternative options. The best thing I could probably plant on my land right now is a house to sell. But that’s not what I want for the future.”

According to the National Agriculture Statistics Service’s latest census of aquaculture, only one shrimp farm was identified in Oklahoma in 2005. So there’s plenty of room for a new locally grown product.

Eaton is happy to share his experience with other local agriculture producers looking to diversify their own operations. In September, he’ll host a field day through the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to demonstrate the feasibility of raising prawn in local farm ponds as additional income for Oklahoma farmers.


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