There is more to aquaculture in the Mississippi Delta than catfish. A small but growing niche in the marketplace is freshwater prawns that command premium prices for a product that some people believe tastes more like lobster than marine shrimp.
Leland-based Lauren Farms (www.laurenfarms.com), owned by Dolores and Steven Fratesi, started producing freshwater prawns in 1995 after Mississippi State University (MSU) asked the couple to see if research done over the past decade at MSU could be transferred to commercial production.
“My husband has L & S Fish Farms, a catfish hatchery, so it was a natural progression for us to begin Lauren Farms, which is a freshwater prawn hatchery and produces product for consumers,” Dolores Fratesi said. “We began hatching for several years, and provided juveniles for both our farm and other farmers. We became confident this could be a way for farmers to diversify. We could really see the potential for the freshwater prawn because it is a premium product raised with no chemicals that has many health benefits. It is a Mississippi, USA, product. With times so uncertain, you know when you buy U.S. freshwater, pond-raised prawns, you have quality and safety. We monitor quality from the hatch all the way to packaging and distribution.”
The prawns are exceptionally tasty, easy to prepare and nutritious. The large prawns are actually more closely related to lobsters than marine shrimp. They have half the fat of marine shrimp, are lower in iodine, lower in cholesterol and low in sodium.
Shrimp, which are high in cholesterol content, used to be taboo on lists of foods recommended for people with heart disease. But Harvard University did a study of the freshwater prawns that concluded both shrimp and prawns could be part of a heart-healthy diet. Shrimp improves the good to bad cholesterol ratio, and also acts to lower triglyceride levels.
The prawns are so popular that they are offered direct to the public at annual pond bank sales at $6 per pound. Last year, the sale attracted customers from five states. After the September sales, six other ponds are harvested in October. The product will be individually quick frozen for mail order sales and sales at outlets such as McDades on Fortification Street and Northside Drive in Jackson and Foodies, located next to Stein Mart at the Deville Plaza off Interstate 55 North in Jackson.
Lauren Farms purchases production from several other growers, as well. But demand is so great that it hasn’t been able to meet a goal of having the product available for sale year around. Mail order demand has been strong.
“We do a lot of shipping for gifts and just for food lovers,” Fratesi said. “They really love the lobster-type taste of the prawns. They are just in a class of their own.”
Fratesi and her daughter, Anne-Lauren Fratesi, recently attended an event called “Cooking for Solutions,” sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a national program dedicated to sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Approximately 22 million copies of a wallet-sized card suggesting what fish are sustainable and those to avoid have been distributed by the Monterey Aquarium.
MSU had suggested that the freshwater prawns were distinctive enough to warrant a “best choice” designation on Seafood Watch, so the Fratesi women took some of their freshwater prawns out to be sampled.
“We were assigned a celebrity chef to prepare the prawns at this event that had many seafood dishes prepared by chefs throughout California,” Fratesi said. “It was all about sustainable agriculture and sustainable aquaculture.”
The freshwater prawns were a hit, and are to be awarded the coveted “best choice” designation, which is a major marketing coup not just for Lauren Farms, but the entire freshwater prawn industry.
“That is huge in our marketing efforts to introduce our product,” said Fratesi, who is past president of the U.S. Freshwater Prawn and Shrimp Growers Association. “Chefs and media from all over U.S. and Canada were there.”
The names “prawns” and “shrimp” are used interchangeably. Fratesi prefers “prawns” because it distinguishes the product from shrimp. Both can be cooked in a similar fashion.
The prawns are still a niche market, but one that can be profitable. Lauren Farms averages from between 750 to 1,100 pounds per acre. Fratesi said with a good yield, the prawns as lucrative as other pond raised fish.
While prawns do particularly well in the mild climate of the Mississippi Delta, they are now being grown in northern states, as well. The prawns are raised all the way up to the Great Lakes.
“They have a shorter growing season than we do, but not very much,” Fratesi said. “They put them in the water when the temperature is 70 degrees and rising. There is a three- to three-and-a-half month growing season up north. The catch is they will grow as large in northern states as here because here when the water reaches a certain warmer temperature, the prawns think they want to reproduce and put some of their energy into that instead of growth. In colder water, they are growing that extra time. They produce a beautiful animal up there, too. There are 16 states now that produce freshwater prawns, and more that are considering it.”
There isn’t a prawn processing plant in the Delta, so the farmers have to market locally with pond bank sales or other methods. Fratesi said it helps that they have been doing this now since 1995.
“We work hard at our marketing,” Fratesi said. “We have established a good market with consistent customers. That is how we are able to buy from some other farmers, as well.”
Fratesi also gets the word out by doing a cooking program on WABG-TV in Greenville every Tuesday morning. She gives tips for cooking the prawns and farm- raised catfish. Fratesi doesn’t consider the cooking show “work.”
“I love doing it,” she said. “It is a lot of fun.”
You can prepare prawns any way you do marine shrimp, but they are plumper and have a firmer texture than marine shrimp.
Soon two new products will be added that will be specially formulated to use with the prawns. Lauren Farms has received a grant from USDA Rural Development to develop the value-added products.
“We will be introducing wonderful sauces in the near future that will compliment the prawns beautifully,” Fratesi said. “We’re just trying to promote the industry and introduce the prawns. They are so easy to prepare. You can have them thawed and sautéed in 15 minutes. It is one of the most easy, delicious and healthy meals you can provide. The ease of preparation is a real bonus.”
The future is looking promising for prawn production.
“It is a great industry,” Fratesi said. “It is a growing industry, and we’re receiving calls every day from new customers. So, we very, very excited about the future.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.