Garrard shrimp farmer harvests success

September 10, 2003|PHIL PENDLETON

David Wilson probably had one of the dirtiest jobs in the state over the weekend. He, along with family and friends, harvested his first shrimp crop Saturday, a job that literally required him to walk in the muck and mire of drained ponds to hand pick live shrimp from the bottom.

Kentucky is one of the best places to grow shrimp, said Wilson of Wilson Farms, located on Ky. 1150 a few miles outside of Lancaster. Wilson is among about 50 Kentucky farmers growing pond or "blue" shrimp, as opposed to the marine shrimp sold at restaurants or stores. "Kentucky has the advantage over (other states)," said Wilson, who ended up selling out the live shrimp Saturday in about three hours.

Wilson said the shrimp, which vary in size from two to four inches at harvest, grow better in Kentucky because of the temperature. "Further south they don't get as big and they reach sexual maturity earlier," said Wilson. "Sexual maturity is delayed in Kentucky because it's slightly cooler."


Wilson said he got into pond shrimp farming to provide an alternative to tobacco farming. But it's not cheap, he said. He said his ponds cost $7,000, he spent $3,000 to $4,000 to run electricity to them, and he spent $1,500 to stock them. And then he had to feed them, twice a day. "Nine dollars a bag for a 50-pound bag," he said.

Many Kentucky farmers are looking for alternative crops, and shrimp farming provides that, said Wilson. "I've been reading about this for about 10 years," he said. Wilson said there are a few other shrimp farmers in the area, at least one in Garrard, one in Lincoln County, and one in Madison County. Kentucky State University is spearheading much of the research into shrimp farming, he said.

After the three-hour sale Saturday, Wilson said his first harvest was a success. "When we put up the 'sold out' signs, people were still coming," he said. Each pound of live shrimp sold for $6.50 a pound. He sold about 550 pounds.

"Shrimp's good no matter what, " said customer Don Graves, who lives near Herrington Lake. He had just purchased eight pounds. "I never saw a shrimp I didn't like. We'll probably grill 'em."

"They're big!" said another customer, leaving with a bag full of iced-over live shrimp.

The pond shrimp are different from marine shrimp in just a few respects, said Wilson. "Most people can't tell them apart."

The growing season starts in June, when shrimp about an inch long are put in ponds about 6 to 7 feet deep. The shrimp are fed twice a day from a mix of grain and fish oil. Before harvest, the ponds are drained, leaving a very muddy bottom from which the shrimp are hand-picked.

Wilson and others transferred the shrimp from two ponds to several tubs of water, then weighed them and put them in bags of ice or coolers to customers. Once at home, customers were told to wash the shrimp, twist and pull off their heads, then put them in their freezers. "Most people like to boil them, then peel and eat," said Wilson.

Francis Wilson, David's mother, was taking customers' money. "They're desperately looking for something to take the place of tobacco," she said of farmers fed up with financial problems of Kentucky's cash crop.

Shrimp farming is like other types of agriculture in that getting a good crop is a gamble of sorts. There is only one harvest day, and if the water temperature gets below 55 degrees, your crop is shot, Wilson said.

"I think it does have some potential," Wilson said of the future of shrimp farming in Kentucky. Prior to the customer influx Saturday, he wasn't too worried. "If nothing else, we would have a lot of shrimp to eat."

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