Hollowell harvests underwater crop

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 12, 2006

SEABOARD – Tom Hollowell is a sixth generation farmer so he is accustomed to harvesting a crop.

This year, however, instead of harvesting from the land, Hollowell harvested from a pond.

Saturday, October 7 marked the first prawn harvest for Hollowell’s family.

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Commercial production of giant, freshwater prawn, or shrimp as they are often referred, is a growing industry in North Carolina.

There are currently eight producers in the state, with most just finishing their first season.

“We were trying to diversify, but wanted something that was unique to this area,” Hollowell explained on his decision to raise prawns.

Hollowell also raises hogs and beef cattle.

He continued, “With people moving into the area because of the automobile research center and Carolina Crossroads, I thought there would be a large population of people that may enjoy this type of product. Unlike other aquaculture enterprises, prawns lend themselves to pond-side sales so I can sell directly off the farm.”

Freshwater prawns differ from marine shrimp in several ways.

Since they are raised in freshwater ponds, the prawn does not have a marine shell typically associated with shrimp.

Prawns are cooked longer than shrimp and have a lobster-like taste and consistency.

The product can be frozen for up to 12 months without losing quality.

According to Mike Frinsko, an Aquaculture Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, freshwater prawns are as close to organic as possible.

“They are currently writing organic standards for prawns,” Frinsko said. “Because there are no pesticides used in the pond or other additives, prawns will qualify.”

Hollowell was pleased with the community’s support at Saturday’s harvest, estimating 350 attended.

“I was very surprised with the turnout,” Hollowell said. “This being the first year, there was a lot of curiosity.”

The first harvest exposed some weaknesses in the harvesting and processing system that Hollowell plans to address for next season.

“The harvest basin needs a little bit of fine tuning,” he said. “We’ve got some tweaking to do at the selling end such as adding scales.

We’re also looking at having customers take a number or placing pre-orders.”

Some patrons waited in line almost three hours to purchase prawns and Hollowell recognizes their support.

“I appreciate their patience and ask for forgiveness, this being the first year and not knowing what we needed to do,” Hollowell noted. “Hopefully we’ll try to eliminate the long line next year.”

Despite the long lines, Hollowell was sold out by Sunday morning.

There was plenty for customers to see while waiting to purchase their prawns.

People walked around the pond and stood on the pier as the water drained.

Crowds also gathered around the catch basin, watching workers net prawns as they came through the drain.

Kids jumped in and helped workers scoop prawns out of the purge tanks in preparation for the freeze kill tank.

“It reminded me of an old fashioned barn raising,” Frinsko said. “The community support and the way people have just been jumping in and helping out has been overwhelming.”

Hollowell put 25,000 mosquito-sized prawn larvae in the pond on June 14. He didn’t see the prawns again until Saturday.

“It was very nerve wracking,” Hollowell said.

“Even with catfish, they come to the surface when you feed them.

Prawns stay at the bottom.

You have to have a big leap of faith to do this.”

Before the sale, Hollowell was estimating a harvest between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds.

The pond yielded 1,420 pounds of prawns.

Prawn production requires a major financial and time commitment.

The oxygen levels must be monitored daily.

When temperatures reached the upper 90’s, Hollowell checked oxygen levels several times a day.

During the dog days of summer, Hollowell ran an agitator in the pond around the clock.

While the prawn pond may look like a regular fish pond, there are differences.

The pond must be built with a slope so the water drains.

This allows the prawns to harvest themselves and produces a cleaner product.

Hollowell worked with Cooperative Extension and the Natural Resource Conservation Service to design the pond.

“Mike’s expertise on how to get the pond in, managing it and caring for the prawns was invaluable,” Hollowell stressed. “The local Extension office also helped me on the marketing side.”

Ponds must be kept free of fish since the fish compete with prawns for food.

One grower in Greensboro harvested only 825 pounds and attributed the low yields to competition from fish that found their way in the prawn pond.

Hollowell had trouble with one blue heron that wanted to poach from the pond, but his dogs chased it away.

He also had a snapping turtle that was relocated.

There is only one harvest per year, which is dictated by water temperatures.

“The prawn is a tropical animal and needs water temperatures to be above 60 degrees,” Hollowell explained. “The juveniles must be put in water that is between 70 and 75 degrees.

The only time they can grow is in the summer.”

With the success of his first harvest, Hollowell is making plans for next season, including the possibility of adding a second pond.

If Saturday is any indication, the demand in the Roanoke-Chowan area will only continue to grow.