If all goes well, prison officials plan to sell shrimp

August 22, 2004|JOHN T. DAVIS

Northpoint Training Center farm manager Billy Peel hopes the state makes some money from the prison's new shrimp farming operation but he also sees it as a way to help other farmers boost their revenues.

"That's why the university (Kentucky State) agreed to help us ... to get people involved and establish a market for it," said Peel, who has managed the Northpoint farm since 1992. "Cattle prices are high right now but that's about the only bright spot for farmers."

Two half-acre ponds that Peel dug himself on the Northpoint farm were stocked June 1 with 10,000 shrimp, which actually are fresh water prawns, and 400 tilapia, a fast-growing, warm-water fish that does well in shrimp ponds.

So far, the farm's first aquatic produce seem to be prospering. During a recent visit to the farm by experts from Kentucky State, which has a nationally known aquaculture program, shrimp as much as 5 inches long and weighing about half an ounce were scooped from the ponds and the tilapia weighed in at about three-quarters of a pound.


"We took a big breather when we found that the prawns were of good size," said Dr. Truman Tipton, a veterinarian who heads the state prison system's farm operations.

The Northpoint shrimp operation is basically an experiment for the prison system, which includes 12 adult institutions, Tipton said.

"We got out of the hog operation two years ago, and we're looking for something to take up the slack in revenues as well as keep our inmates busy," Tipton said.

After this fall's harvest, Corrections officials will evaluate whether it's appropriate to try shrimp farming at other state farms, Tipton said.

Northpoint Warden Jim Morgan said the shrimp operation has been "interesting," involves little daily maintenance and has had low startup costs.

"In any venture, you want to come out with at least your money back," Morgan said. "It provides inmates on outside detail with some working knowledge of raising shrimp in Kentucky. It's a new field in Kentucky but it's growing. I'm sure their talents can be used when they get out."

Peel said he already has received some calls from farmers interested in seeing the operation.

"If local farmers want to come out and look at it, they are more than welcome to," he said.

Digging ponds was most difficult part

The most difficult part in setting up the Northpoint shrimp operation was digging the ponds on the rocky land near Herrington Lake and then getting the ponds to hold water. To work properly, farmers can't use existing ponds because they have to be the right depth - 5 feet at the deep end and 3 feet at the other - so they will drain properly at harvest time. Each pond also contains an aerator that not only adds oxygen to the water but keeps it moving in a steady circle.

Maintenance of the operation basically consists of twice-a-day feedings and taking readings of the water temperature and oxygen levels in the pond.

Peel believes the revenue from shrimp farming can be comparable to tobacco. He expects to get about 600 pounds of shrimp from each half-acre pond. If the shrimp sell for $7 a pound, each pond would produce $4,200 in revenue.

Besides growing 30 acres of garden crops at Northpoint, Peel currently has 165 head of registered Angus cattle and the farm holds cattle sales twice a year, which have become increasingly popular with buyers in this area and across the state.

One would think that prison farms would have unlimited supply of cheap labor but that's not the case, Tipton said. To work outside the prison, inmates have to be classified as minimum security and those same prisoners are also needed for other jobs around the institution. Minimum-security inmates also are usually fairly close to being released.

At Northpoint, Peel has about 10 to 13 inmates available to work on the 2,000-acre farm. Even though some of the inmates may have farm backgrounds, those from the cities seem to enjoy the work more, Peel said.

"A lot of the best workers come right of the city," he said. "Those are your best workers, people who just want to learn it."

If all goes well, Northpoint will be selling shrimp and fish on the farm this fall as well as registered Angus cattle. When the harvest day comes, which should be around Oct. 1 depending on the weather, prison officials plan to sell their new aquaculture product to the public at pondside.

"We're going to take them out, clean them off good and put them on ice," said Peel.

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