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November 25, 2008

Prawn industry gets boost in North Carolina

prawn harvest
Workers process prawns after they are harvested at Crazy Claws Prawn Farm. (Photos by Marc Hall)

By 10 a.m. on a Tuesday in October, the prawns are out of the pond at the Relyeas’ “Crazy Claws” Prawn Farm in Greene County. According Mike Frinsko, area aquaculture agent, this is a big change from years past, when the harvests went on from early morning until late afternoon and evening.

Malaysian prawns are large, freshwater shrimp-like crustaceans raised in specially designed earthen ponds. And they are the hottest trend in North Carolina aquaculture, thanks largely to the efforts of Frinsko and the formation this year of the new American Prawn Cooperative, based here in North Carolina.

In 2004, North Carolina had a single prawn operation in Johnston County. The owners of the DJ&W Shrimp Farm had enlisted Frinsko’s help in creating two ponds to raise the prawns. Today, the state is home to 12 prawn producers from Vanceboro in the east to Mt. Airy in the west. Five of the producers joined the new cooperative this year.

The Relyeas, who have raised prawns for three years to supplement their produce operation, next year will host the nation’s first quick-freeze prawn processing plant. The cooperative received a grant through Greene County from the N.C. Rural Center to develop the processing line to support the state’s growing prawn industry.

Raising prawns is a lot like other types of food animals. The ponds are stocked in the spring with juvenile prawns that grow throughout the summer. Mature prawns are harvested in the fall before the water gets too cold. Unique to aquaculture, producers must carefully manage a variety of water-quality factors on a daily basis, paying special attention to the impact of feed-derived nutrients and the daily fluctuations of oxygen.

When the prawns are large enough to harvest, the farmers drain the ponds, and the prawns follow the water flow as it exits into a catch basin. Once in the basin they are then netted, placed in baskets and carried on for additional processing.

At the Relyeas’ farm, the prawns were transported in large tanks from the ponds to the processing lines. First, they are submerged in ice water, then their heads removed before they are shipped to a nearby catfish processing plant for quick freezing. From there, many find their way north to the “white tablecloth” restaurants of New York and other cities.

The American Prawn Cooperative was developed with assistance of N.C. Cooperative Extension, N.C. State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, according to Frinsko. Natalie Relyea of Crazy Claws is the treasurer and processing manager for the co-op. The processing facility will be located at a site adjacent to her Walstonburg-area farm.

“The five producers (in the co-op) have all worked collaboratively, assisting each other at harvest,” Frinsko said. “They’ve developed real teamwork.”

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Mike Frinsko, left, talks with Natalie Relyea at the October prawn harvest on her farm.

Frinsko attributes this teamwork to the speedier harvests seen this season. He hopes that forming the cooperative will allow the growers to not only benefit from the support of other members, but to provide increased market penetration by working together.

“We’ve proven for seven years that we can raise prawns,” he said. “We’ve been able to market individually, and now we feel we will be more successful marketing together.”

Working together is something new to many farmers, who are accustomed to looking after their own operations. But these five growers in the co-op set a goal of working together, and it seems to work for them.

“We don’t always agree,” said Natalie Relyea, “but we are committed to working together.”

And by combining their product, the co-op producers will also provide clients with more prawns to supply larger markets.

Natalie Relyea and her husband John added prawns to their business three years ago. They already had learned how successful a local produce business can be – the Relyeas sell 4,000-5,000 gallons of shelled butterbeans and peas each summer.

“This prawn thing has really caught on,” Natalie said. “We realized that there is a huge market for people who want to know where their food comes from.”

She is proud of the quality of the prawns the Crazy Claws produces. “They’re the best prawns because of the way they’re handled,” she said. “They are raised and processed with no preservatives, no additives.” And Frinsko added, “Prawns are also a sustainably produced food, another important point as we compete in an increasingly green economy.”

The Relyea’s have three two-acre prawn ponds, which can each produce roughly 2,000 pounds of prawns. This year was probably their best harvest ever, she said. “We learn more and get better every year.”

Natalie appreciates the support that Mike Frinsko has provided to her family and other prawn producers. “Mike knows the industry, and he’s very quality conscious,” she said. “He attends our harvest. He’s our tech guy, and a good friend too.”

She also credits other N.C. State faculty for their support of agriculture in North Carolina, including Bob Usry, now retired from Agricultural and Resource Economics; Blake Brown of the Value-Added Program in Kannapolis; Matt Parker of NCDA&CS, ; and Mark Seitz, area horticulture agent; and Stan Dixon, soon-to-be-retired Greene County Extension director.

-N. Hampton

Posted by Natalie at November 25, 2008 11:12 AM