Thursday, June 16, 2005
A Franklin County tobacco farmer attempts to diversify his produce with freshwater shrimp.
RUEVINE - It's a sticky, sweaty day in southeastern Franklin County.
Drizzling rain cuts through the thick air as a solitary dog barks in the distance. Johnny Angell surveys the weather, leans out the window of his '73 GMC pickup truck and, with an expression of delight, gestures toward two large ponds. There, the self-described "redneck environmentalist" tobacco farmer is growing Malaysian freshwater shrimp prawns, and the weather seems to match their Southeast Asian homeland.
"I've never been to Vietnam," he said, "but it seems like it's a good day for growing shrimp. This is hot, humid, wonderful growing weather."
Angell's invested $30,000 into a plan to grow prawns in the two ponds, which take up about 2 acres of his approximately 1,000-acre farm. Last week, he stocked the ponds with about 25,000 juvenile shrimp, purchased from an Ohio hatchery.
He's put alfalfa and brewer's grain into the ponds, hoping to encourage the growth of zooplankton, microscopic animals upon which the prawns will feed. Electric motors in each pond circulate the water to keep it full of oxygen. Angell will spend the summer regularly checking the ponds' pH levels, dissolved oxygen contents and water hardness.
Then, in late September he'll harvest the prawns. By then - if all goes well - they'll have grown as large as 9 inches. Depending on how large they grow, as few as six can weigh a pound. Angell plans on packing the shrimp in ice and selling them directly out of the pond for about $7 a pound. Similar freshwater shrimp, imported from India, sell in a Kroger seafood department for $12 a pound.
"If I can grow them and they are superior to the same product sold at a higher price, then I think there may be something there," Angell said. "That's if I can grow them. I may look foolish next fall."
Angell is only one of many regional tobacco farmers looking to diversify his crops. Prior to this year, tobacco farmers participated in a quota system in which they were guaranteed to sell what they grew. However, global competition and a drop in price contributed to a national buyout that ended the quotas.
Starting this year, tobacco farmers can grow as much tobacco as they like, but there's no guarantee on a price, or even that they'll be able to sell their crops. Angell said he expects prices this year will be at least 25 percent lower than they were with the quota system.
"I've been looking for something since the quota decline four or five years ago," Angell said. "The [tobacco] price now is equivalent to the '70s market. I can't imagine a 25 percent price cut won't improve our market share, but is it enough to make a living?"
The shrimp prawns aren't Angell's only side project. He keeps several hundred acres in timber production with poplar and loblolly pine trees. He grows hay and at one point dabbled in beef cattle. Last year he tried growing red raspberries, but the crop failed.
"But year in and year out, tobacco pays the bills," he said.
Angell has considered following the example of some other Virginia tobacco growers and switching to wine grapes, but he's worried the market might be saturated. Eventually, his interest in fish led him to pursue the shrimp farming idea.
He's working with Brian Nerrie, an aquaculture specialist and professor at Virginia State University in Petersburg. Nerrie said he's worked with some tobacco farmers working to raise fish in eastern parts of the state but, so far as he knows, Angell is the only one doing it in Western Virginia.
Like Angell, Nerrie acknowledges the risk inherent in farming shrimp. They may be susceptible to predators - Angell said he knows there are a couple of herons that hang out near the ponds - and it's easy to botch the water chemistry.
"One of the difficulties is anytime you try a new form of agriculture, there's a learning curve associated with it," Nerrie said. "Every day is something new."
There's a large upside, though, if everything works out.
"Freshwater shrimp has shown some great market potential," Nerrie said. "It has an approximately 100-day growing season, and even though it's a tropical organism, it does quite well during the 100 days of 65 degrees and over water temperature that exists in Virginia."
Others are enthusiastic about Angell's venture as well. Carol Leggett, director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, predicts a traffic jam on Snow Creek Road when Angell announces he's ready to sell.
"I can see him after the first harvest not having to sell out of the pond, because they'll all be bought while they're still growing," Leggett said. "If he can get that first crop going, yeah, I think it'll be great."
Angell's hope is to harvest 20,000 shrimp this year, averaging about 10 shrimp per pound. If that happens, he might break even by the second or third year.
After that, he said, the sky is the limit. Angell may add two more ponds. He'd like to provide local seafood restaurants with fresh shrimp. He may even use the ponds to grow fish during the winter, possibly tilapia.
Some tobacco farmers on the East Coast have even started fee-fishing operations. Angell has a 5-acre catfish pond that he allows friends and family to use, but he doesn't have any immediate plans to open that to the public.
And anyway, despite his interest in fish, he's no longer an angler himself.
"I no longer do any hunting or fishing," Angell said with a grin. "I was such an expert I just quit."Malaysian freshwater prawnMacrobrachium rosenbergii
• Native to Southeast Asia, where they live in lakes and river deltas.
• Commercial prawn farming began in Florida in the 1970s.
• The largest prawns have grown to nearly half a pound. Usually, though, they weigh about 2.5 ounces.
• If water temperature is lowered slowly, prawns can survive water temperatures as low as 57 degrees.
• Freshwater shrimp have a much blander taste than their saltwater counterparts. That makes them more suitable for marinades.Sources: Mississippi State University, Ohio State University, Ala-Tom RC&D Council in Alabama