LANCASTER, Ohio (AP) — On a 40-acre patch of Fairfield County, surrounded by rolling fields of soybeans and corn, Don Maloney is about to harvest a crop that’s unusual in these parts.
In three ponds out behind a big white barn, more than 40,000 freshwater prawns, or shrimp, have fattened up all summer in the warm, dark water.
Maloney pulled a few prawns out of one pond with a fishing net. The translucent brown creature in his hand was one of the smaller ones, he said.
“This is what you put in a salad.”
Maloney’s harvest of a couple of thousand pounds — the prawns run between 16 to 33 per pound — doesn’t sound like much, but he’s the biggest prawn producer in the state.
“That’s what they tell me,” he said.
Pretty good for a guy who works full time for AT&T and started growing prawns on the side six or seven years ago to make a little extra money off of his 40-acre farm. Experts at Ohio State University Extension suggested fruit trees, but they take years and years to mature, or another specialty crop, or aquaculture. Maloney settled on prawns.
“It all started as a novelty thing,” said Jay Picklesimer, one of Maloney’s friends and mentors who has helped with the project over the years. “Our success has been better than what people told us it would be.”
Growing prawns isn’t as simple as tossing some into a pond. Maloney has three ponds, about an acre each, in which he put 44,000 baby prawns in late May. He harvests the prawns in the first half of September. The first harvest was Saturday.
The prawns need some tending. They are fed each evening. (They are nocturnal, after all.) The water must be checked often for temperature, PH level and oxygen content.
Maloney installed motors in each pond that mix air into the water to keep the oxygen level up and developed a “shrimp shooter” to make broadcasting food pellets, a protein-rich mix of fish, kelp and other ingredients, into the ponds a bit easier. If they lack food, prawns will eat each other.
Temperature is most concerning to Maloney. The prawns, native to Malaysia, can’t survive in cold water. Ideal conditions are 75 to 85 degrees. Anything below 55 degrees means certain death. The recent chilly weather has been worrisome.
“An early cold snap can kill a lot of the crop,” said Matt Smith, aquaculture expert at Ohio State University Extension.
Ohio has a solid climate for aquaculture, or farming fish and seafood in confined ponds, Smith said. Some of the species grown in Ohio include yellow perch, prawns, small-mouth bass, rainbow trout and tilapia. Most of those are grown for stocking fishing ponds, but some, like tilapia and prawns, are for eating.
About 60 farms in Ohio produce 25 species, Smith said. The bounty is worth $4.75 million a year, he added. About half of Ohio’s aquaculture farms produce food.
In the grand scheme, though, Ohio’s aquaculture industry is tiny. Mississippi leads the way with more than 200 farms producing $200 million worth of fish and seafood. The industry is not growing much, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with fewer farms now than 10 years ago, but production by those farms has increased.
Maloney started with one pond and, after some trial and error the first few years, added two more. He has room for additional ponds as well.
“At first, we did everything wrong, but now we are starting to get good at this,” he said, “We are at a moment where we need to decide to expand again.”
The prawns, which are mostly sold right at the pond on harvest days, almost always sell out. He also sells at the Ohio Fish and Shrimp Festival in Urbana the third weekend of September.
Maloney’s prawns go for $10 to $12 a pound. The challenge with expansion for Maloney is finding new markets. He sells to a few wholesalers who sell to small restaurants and a handful of other restaurants directly.
“My worst fear is having thousands of pounds of prawns and no one to buy them.”
He also worries that he will drain a pond and find all the prawns are gone. Since the prawns are nocturnal and live on the bottom of the pond, it can be hard to tell how they are getting along.
“If you like gambling, you become a farmer,” Maloney said. “You don’t ever see (the prawns), you throw your money into the pond, and you hope it comes back out.”