Shrimp Harvest Magazine Article

Down on the Farm – Shrimp

Originally published in Shrimp Harvest magazine, November 15, 2007 by Tim Croft

Size matters in farming even when the crop is a shrimp.

Wood's Fisheries Shrimp Harvest Magazine Article

So as Mark Godwin harvested one of his fields, uh, ponds on a recent cool morning, he observed his bounty with a mixture of pleasure and frustration from another lesson learned. The shrimp spilling from the white PVC pipe into one of eight blue vats atop a trailer were plump and long, the 15-16 count – number per pound – that Godwin set as the goal.

But the yield from this pond, one of six measuring roughly from 3.8 to 4.6 acres and with the sixth yet to be harvested, was not what Godwin hoped. He estimated he would bring 11,000-12,000 pounds to the processing plant at Wood’s Fisheries that day. It could have been more, but Godwin points to his hatchlings – his farming seeds, if you will – from the spring which might not have been as mature and hardy as he would have liked.

This, though, is just the second harvest in what has turned out to be a five-year journey to make aquaculture, specifically, shrimp farming, work in Gulf County, an effort that recently earned Godwin and his family recognition as county Farm Family of the Year. Last year, Godwin started with one pond. This year it was six. Each step along the way has brought more knowledge and that, combined with the hard work required of most farming, is critical to harvesting shrimp.

“It is real complex,” Godwin said. “A lot of it is a balance between instinct and experience, educated guesses based on what you know from history.”

Harvest Time

After spending mid-April to mid-October – the ideal growing season – flourishing in the warm saline waters Godwin has pumped into his series of ponds in Howard Creek, the shrimp are ready to harvest. Each pond is carved into the ground – a unique kind of clay, as it turns out – like a bathtub, a deep end draining toward a shallower end.

The drain in this case is a C-shaped cement block on the shallow end, its plug a line of boards that have been pulled out this day to allow the water to flow through the “drain box.” The water travels by gravity and pipe through an embankment into what is a long ditch of water on the other side where it meets a pump surrounded by netting akin to a sock on a foot. The pump drives the water up into what in the Midwest would be mistaken for a small thresher – the machine that removes chaff from wheat, corn from husk, etc. – where water and shrimp are separated.

The water, and each pond holds something along the lines of 1.25 million gallons, is sent back over the ditch to a retention pond where it will gradually evaporate. The total size of the property on which Godwin is working is roughly 300 acres, ensuring that saltwater does not migrate off the site. Meanwhile the shrimp travel down a large-bore PVC tunnel to the set of vats, along with, on this day, a few fat and sassy bream which worker William Raffield tosses into a bucket, destined for his kitchen or grill.

The trailer of vats, once filled, will be transported by Godwin’s father-in-law Buddy Wood to the Wood’s Fisheries fish house in Highland View for immediate processing. Before he leaves, Buddy Wood will leave behind another set of vats, just emptied at the plant. The pond will be drained of all shrimp – as the water levels go down it becomes a kind of mosh pit for the occasional “shrimp stampede,” as Godwin called it – by noon, about six hours after the work day began, as Godwin and Raffield set up the machinery, ensuring no holes in the net around the pump and everything is operable.

Shrimp Farming

Aquaculture and the farming of shrimp is hardly a new trend.

“It’s been around awhile. Florida has not been attractive because of the price of the land,” Godwin said. The state nonetheless has championed the concept for more than a decade and there are shrimp farms dotting the Southeast, particularly in Texas. The flood of imports that has roiled the United States market in the past five or six years is in large measure fueled by shrimp farming in far-flung locales such as China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The plot of land on which Wood’s Fisheries now operates its shrimp farming operation was once home to a catfish farm operated by a Japanese firm, which made the land extremely attractive to the Wood family when they decided to take the plunge.

The project, Godwin said, started in part out of the need for a new project to wrap his hands around. The family-owned and operated business had, in the wake of 9/11, retooled and enhanced its processing plant and Godwin was in search of another challenge. The question, Godwin wondered, was what was next. “I like a challenge,” Godwin said. “My father-in-law has a work ethic like nothing you’d believe. “We feed off each other and it snowballed from there. Put his experience and put the two of us together, it was like pouring gasoline on a fire.” The concept, however, proved far easier to identify than to execute.

Learning Curve

Godwin, who possesses a business degree and a drive that has propelled him since he was a self-employed teenager, set to work learning all he could about shrimp farming. “We didn’t have a plan, we just went to work,” Godwin said. “We pushed and pushed and pushed.”

He and Buddy went to Harlingen, Texas to observe an operation there, where the quality of the shrimp and the ease of processing impressed the pair. Another aspect that appealed was the collegial nature of the business, the information sharing among farmers and universities such as Auburn and Texas A&M.

“We decided let’s go back and look at it and see if we could do it,” Godwin said. “We didn’t know anything… And nobody had thought of an inland farm.

“I found that it wasn’t rocket science, it was hard work.”

There were a few factors working in his favor. The catfish farming operation, long since abandoned, left behind a plot of land that, Godwin eventually determined, could be purchased and it already had much of the infrastructure he would need.

Additionally, the soil he needed, one that would not percolate – called meggett, it is a type of fine clay – and therefore would hold the water without need of any form of lining, could be found in the county, not so coincidentally, at Howard Creek, including that roughly 300 acres on which the catfish farm sat and the Woods would ultimately buy. The project, however, was not without its hurdles.

The first of which was the family getting its hands on the land, which became more dicey as Godwin undertook the necessary first step, a feasibility study to determine that the project had viability. As Godwin noted, the result was a consultant who told him he had the makings of a shrimp farm and a price for the land that was decent and affordable, but not as low as it could have been due to the entrance onto the scene of another potential buyer. In any case, the next major step was determining how best to get to saltwater, the tricky part to establishing an inland farm.

“That was a large part of the feasibility study, could I find saline water,” Godwin said.

A 16-inch production well had been drilled just north of the site and transported to the catfish operation through a series of ditches. The hurdle for Godwin was to 1) find the saltwater of sufficient quality and 2) convince the Northwest Water Management District that his project would not further strain the upper, or freshwater portion, of the underground limestone sponge called the Floridan Aquifer.

The problem for the catfish farm was that at 500 feet deep, the water became too salty. So Godwin and crew drilled to 1,000 feet in 100-feet increments, tested and sent the samples off to Auburn. “It was good water, real good water,” Godwin said, adding that the production well ended up at 1,200 feet and a salinity level more than two times the minimum needed for quality farm production.

And managing that water, its levels of oxygen and nitrates, the temperature and the level of feed – the No. 2 input cost in shrimp farming – that goes into each pond, was the critical part of shrimp farming. Aerators, like tiny paddlewheels, spin continuously in the water to oxygenate the water, de-stratisfy the water to fight potential algae bloom and to cool the water through evaporation.

Mid-October is the perfect time for harvest because water less than 25-degree Celsius is too cool to facilitate growth. Likewise, if the water is too hot, the algae “go crazy” and growth is mutated because the shrimp will not eat. “A shrimp farmer is not so much a farmer, but a manager of the water parameters,” Godwin said. The wrangling with the water management district took almost a year, but Godwin summed up the subject succinctly.

“I told them that I’m interested in building a shrimp farm and the water is the heart of my farm,” Godwin said. “I don’t want your freshwater. If I get your freshwater, I’m sacrificing my product.” Water management district officials signed off on a consumptive use permit.

Local Touches

The Woods use a lower density stocking each pond than what they saw in Texas in order to produce the larger shrimp they seek. Another key is securing hatchlings – 460,000 went into the water in the spring – that are robust, mature and certified as pathogen free. Only a few hatcheries in the country offer such a product. Godwin said this year’s hatchlings arrived late and were not of the quality he expected. Looking toward next season, Godwin will seek to secure his “seeds” from Florida hatcheries that will return to business this year for the first time since the hurricanes of 2004.

The Wood’s Fisheries strategy is to package and market the farm shrimp differently than their other offerings. They sell the shrimp across the country, especially in coastal areas along the Eastern seaboard. Godwin described the taste with normal or no seasonings as having more texture and being sweeter, less fishy than sea shrimp. The employee, Raffield, said there was little difference in taste with the batch he’d made on the grill the previous night. The farm shrimp provide a critical supplemental supply of shrimp, given the economics of rising fuel costs, finding good help and steel costs which can make a shrimp boat a $1 million expense.

“The days of the simple small fishing families is slipping away,” Godwin said. “Boats that are making it now are those where the owners are directly involved.” He said after American companies competed head-on with foreign supplies and confused the market for several years, a new marketing focus and a push for Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is starting to make headway. “All we have to do is, to the guy sitting down and eating it, let them make the choice and the rest will work itself out,” Godwin said. “If we can get to that place where you as the consumer are asking for that product, that’s what we need.

“If we can’t niche market our product then we might was well close the doors and go home.”