Meet the Illinois Farmer Who Raises Freshwater Shrimp
Illinois doesn’t lie anywhere near an ocean, so the idea of Illinois-raised shrimp may sound outlandish. But in the southern part of the state, one farm family has made that possible, raising freshwater shrimp – known as prawns – for nearly two decades.
Pope County farmer Grover Webb has done a lot to diversify his operation over the years. Webb partners with his brother, Richard, at Tanglefoot Ranch to raise prawns, along with 500 acres of corn and soybeans, hoop houses for produce, 300 peach trees and 65 head of beef cattle. They’ve been producing prawns since the year 2000.
[infobox alignment=”right” title=”If You Go…”]
Crops & Livestock: freshwater prawns, produce, peaches, raspberries
Location: Simpson, Illinois
Phone: (618) 695-2640
“We were looking for an alternative ag enterprise, and we found out that we’re in a very good location to raise freshwater shrimp, temperature-wise,” Webb says. “Farther north, you don’t have enough warm days, and farther south, it gets too hot and they don’t grow as well. We have a clay-based soil type that holds water, so it was easy to build ponds. We were really in one of the best places in the United States to raise them. And I really consider myself a land manager, rather than just a farmer. It sort of fit the farm, some land that we had.”
The Webbs first investigated raising catfish, but didn’t have the water supply needed and enough warm days to grow them. Prawns require smaller ponds and only 120 days from the time they enter the ponds to the time of harvest.
Webb receives the shrimp from a supplier in Texas when they are 33 days old. Each spring, he loads about 80,000 prawns into a nursery in the basement of Richard’s house, which consists of two, 5,000-gallon heated tanks. They’ll spend the next 45 days there, until the outside ponds warm up to 70 degrees, usually in early June.
Webb tends to six outdoor ponds by driving around on his four-wheeler and blowing pelleted cattle feed out across the water.
“They taste so much better than marine shrimp because they’re cleaner with eating the cattle feed,” Webb says. “The shrimp in nature are just scavengers. They eat whatever dies, rots and sinks to the bottom. So, that’s one thing about our shrimp people notice immediately. They taste so much fresher.”
[infobox alignment=”right” title=”See More”]Have a prawn party at the Golconda Shrimp Festival. [/infobox]
Shrimp grow when the water temperature reaches at least 80 degrees. It takes 120 days of optimal temperatures to grow prawns to a desirable size. That’s because shrimp grow by molting, increasing their size by 25 percent each time. Webb says a prawn will molt about 40 times during its lifespan. A few warm weeks in the fall resulting in one extra molt can significantly increase the size of the shrimp. He harvests the prawns before the water drops to 60 degrees, typically in early October.
The six-hour harvest process includes draining the ponds and catching the shrimp as they exit through a pipe. From there, they go into stock tanks filled with bags of ice. A crew of four to six people will remove the heads and then fill plastic bags with 2 pounds of shrimp to be frozen.
The ranch also serves as a regional nursery, supplying other producers with shrimp. Many of the prawns will end up at the Golconda Shrimp Festival each year. Webb sold to a restaurant in Chicago for a time, but he prefers to focus on the southern Illinois market.
“It’s really been a very positive thing for the farm,” Webb says. “I enjoy doing things like this. If you gave me instructions to build a rocket to the moon, I don’t think I could do that. But shrimp are livestock. I’ve been in the livestock business all my life. It’s just different principles that you have to adhere to, and then you let Mother Nature do the rest.”