Marginal land moves to aquaculture

A few years ago, Ronnie and Tracy Pigue decided their marginal ground needed something other than row crops. Aquaculture is a thriving industry around Paragould, Ark., but Ronnie wasn't keen on catfish and focused on crawfish.

Standing beside a series of 1- to 1.5-acre ponds, Ronnie says the dirt they were carved from is “totally marginal. This is exactly where the ground sunk during the 1812 earthquake. Stand here and look east; that's where all the cotton is. From here west to the Ozark Mountains, it's mostly rice. I grew up on this fault-line — our house was 200 yards across that field.”

In transforming their operation, the couple set out to do two things. First, was to take the 400 acres they own and make them completely self-sufficient. Second, they wanted to produce something to sell directly to retail consumers.

“We started talking about it four years ago,” says Ronnie. “Three years ago, we brooded our first crawfish farm. Two years ago, we had our first harvest. We're in our second prawn harvest now.”

Ronnie prefers working small ponds. “We have nine prawn ponds. Total, we have 6.1 acres of prawns and 70 acres of crawfish — soon to be 100 acres. Neither operation is big. I prefer to think of our size and growth as cautious.”

On a busy highway a quarter mile from the prawn ponds, a marquee advertises “Harvesting Now” in front of Delta Crawfish headquarters, the Pigues' distribution business. At mid-morning, customers are already stopping to ask for prawns.

“People here seem to love them,” says Tracy. “Once they try freshwater prawns, they want more.”

As long as the weather holds out, the Pigues can schedule harvest to fit local market demand. In doing so, they won't get caught holding a lot of product.

“We'll pull this pond and see how weekend sales go,” Ronnie says. “If need be, we can pull another pond in the morning. As long as it stays warm, we'll just pull them as we need them. Typically, the season will end around the first of October — that's when it usually gets too cold.”

To succeed with prawns and crawfish, the Pigues pay close attention to their market. “If you have the right approach, it'll work,” says Ronnie. “There was no prawn market here. We've created one. I want prawn season in the fall to become like crawfish season in the spring. People get excited about having shindigs with crawfish. We want the same thing for prawns.”

How do freshwater prawns and saltwater shrimp compare?

“Prawns and shrimp are essentially the same creature,” says Ronnie. “It's like the difference between a black crappie and a white crappie.

“As far as taste, out of all our customers, three in two years have said they prefer saltwater shrimp over prawns. Prawns taste sweeter and richer. One guy told me eating prawns is like, ‘eating lobster at a sixth the price.’ That's about right.”

For the freshwater prawn industry to be successful, Ronnie says, production must increase or the costs of juvenile stocking shrimp must decline.

“This isn't an issue just for my operation — this is an industry-wide concern. I don't know how far we are from either of those occurring. Producing juveniles is still expensive. When there's a way to feed juveniles efficiently, it won't be hard to compete with saltwater shrimp.”

A veteran prawn farmer in the Mid-South has been in the business for about five years, says Ronnie. “I've yet to meet anyone who's raised them much longer than that. I'm a second-year producer and I'm on the U.S. Freshwater Shrimp and Prawn Growers Association Board! That should tell you how young this industry is.”

A minimum of 120 days is needed to produce a crop of giant Malaysian prawns like Ronnie's. The warmer the spring, the sooner the water temperature is up (70 degrees is required for stocking) and pH isn't swinging — a major concern with raising prawns — “the sooner you can get rocking and rolling,” says Ronnie. “Typically, we get in during early May. If you can get into the ponds two weeks earlier than usual and two weeks at the back end (and we're having a warm fall this year) you have an extra 30 days of growing season. That means at least two more molts on the prawns, leading to much more growth, which means more pounds to the acre.”

Tracy says last year's harvest included ponds that wouldn't drain well. “It was awful. They couldn't corner the prawns. So the crew sledded huge tubs around the bottom of ponds. Ronnie was crawling around on his hands and knees feeling for prawns. It took hours to finish. I've never seen such a mess.”

Ronnie laughs when recalling the day. “I've never been dirtier, but it was worth it. A few years ago, Tracy said, ‘It would be so nice if we could take our land and make it self-sufficient. How nice would it be to farm a few hundred acres instead of 6,000 acres to pay the bills?’

“We set out to make it happen. Crawfish, prawns and a hunting camp have helped us do it. That makes me very happy. If it takes eating a little mud every once in a while, so be it.”

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