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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

The prawn broker

He sells his shrimp pond-side, but Jerry Pellman also raises goats, buffalo and alpacas on the family farm.

Crispy-crunchy deep-fried with a glob of tomato ketchup. Mixed with pungent garlic, creamy butter and a mound of pasta. Or seared to perfection with fresh tomatoes and peppers and just a hint of charcoal. We may fix our shrimp differently, but it all probably comes from the seafood aisle of the nearest grocery store. Well, in Southern Indiana, we have another option -- straight from the pond.

Jerry Pellman has lived on the same 150 acres of Navilleton Road in Floyd County for his entire 51 years. From the road, you'd never suspect the long, narrow driveway and the simple, tan-shingled home with a two-car garage and a basketball hoop is the entrance to one of only three freshwater prawn farms in Indiana.

The freshwater prawn is different than the shrimp you order in restaurants, but don't get too hung up on the terminology. Jerry calls his product "shrimp." Dolores Fratesi, secretary/treasurer of the United States Freshwater Prawn Growers' Association, Inc., says that although she uses "prawn," shrimp and prawn are really interchangeable. The key word here is "freshwater."

Unlike marine shrimp, which are harvested from the salty sea, the prawns come from freshwater ponds. Fratesi says they taste more like lobster than traditional marine shrimp. Fully grown, the prawns are about five or six inches long and have a pair of ambidextrous, dark blue, snapping claws. The prawn's shell is clear and even changes color depending on what it has eaten.

On Harvest Day, usually the third Saturday in September, the Pellman farm hosts a crowd of 50 to 75 people from Louisville, Ky., Greenville, Ind., and even Chicago who come to see the Pellmans drain the prawn ponds. Onlookers purchase the prawns for $10 per pound, take them home and fix them to their liking.

The Pellmans sell 90 percent of their nearly 700 pounds of prawns through e-mailed pre-orders. Last year, customers snapped up the prawns, and the Pellmans didn't have any leftover for themselves. So Kristie, Jerry's wife, fixed a big pot of chili for the family afterward instead.

Harvest Day starts at noon and is over within three hours. Jerry says he and his three sons -- Chris, 23, Sean, 16, and Nolan, 15 -- start draining the first two ponds on Friday. They leave the third pond to drain for the spectators on Harvest Day.

Draining the ponds is as easy as putting a bucket below the pond drain. Jerry opens up the pipe, and water begins to flow out to the ground below. The prawns, which live on the bottom of the pond, follow the water and crawl straight into the drain, falling into the bucket below. Then Jerry transfers the prawns to the house for a clean-water bath and a chill kill -- prawns can't survive in water temperatures below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. After the prawns have perished, the Pellmans fill the orders.

Those orders get filled come rain or shine. In 2006, when 1.7 inches of rain fell on Harvest Day, Jerry ran up and down the driveway, taking orders and delivering prawns to dry customers waiting in the comfort of their cars.

Indiana food-processing regulations don't allow the Pellmans to process the prawns at the farm. So, Kristie prints up instructions on how to get to the tail meat -- it's as easy as a twist and a pull.

The tail meat isn't the only part of the animal that can make your mouth water. One man wanted only females with eggs. "He says 'Can I buy all females?' and I said 'Sure.' So we picked 'em out for him and he kept coming back," Jerry says. "I don't even know how he fixed them, didn't want to know."

In 2004, Jerry Pellman did want to know how to raise freshwater prawns, but he couldn't find anyone who knew. He found a seminar in Scottsburg and a live harvest in Sulfur. Armed with his newfound knowledge, he decided to take the plunge on his 44th birthday.

"I said, 'I'm gonna go give myself a birthday present, I'm going to try this.' Well, by the time it was time to harvest them, everyone in the neighborhood knew I had 'em, and we had a bunch of people over here going, 'Will you sell them, will you sell them?'"

The Pellmans sold out of prawns that first year and ended up driving to Indianapolis to get some for themselves.

The next year, Jerry built two more ponds, and he installed the necessary electric and water lines himself. Pond construction is a science -- manuals from aquaculture studies at Mississippi State University and Kentucky State University describe very detailed designs.

"A lot of people think they can just jump up and raise them in whatever ponds they've got," Jerry's son Sean says. But raising prawns is more complex than throwing some juveniles in a swimming pool.

Jerry's ponds are 30 inches deep on the shallow end and five feet deep on the other end; the pond bottom angles for draining purposes. One pump controls the air and water level for all three ponds. Prawns are sensitive, and pristine pond culture is a must. Prawns require oxygen, water temperatures above 68 degrees Fahrenheit and a water pH between 7.0 and 8.5. Jerry drives to Frankfort, Ky., to buy the juveniles, and the water in the pond must be the same as the water in the 200-gallon tank in which he transports the baby prawns back to the farm. He once lost a whole pond of prawns because the water was too different from the water in the tank.

Even in the best conditions, Jerry estimates that he loses 25 percent of his prawns before Harvest Day. "You can't see the shrimp on the bottom of the pond. You don't know whether you got 10 of them in there or if you got 4,000," he says.

The shrimp are very territorial and will eat each other, especially if they are underfed. Raccoons, cranes and even frogs routinely help themselves to prawns, making proper pond construction -- designed to deter predators and cannibalism -- even more essential.

Jerry says he's still perfecting his system, but he's got it down to a point where he only needs to spend 10 minutes a day with his prawns.

Growing freshwater prawns is a small industry in the United States. American farmers like Jerry produce less than 200,000 pounds of prawns per year -- that's less than one percent of all the shrimp consumed in the United States. Yet, the prawn industry has found itself as a small niche market.

Seafood Watch named the freshwater prawn a "best choice" shrimp in 2009 due to its sustainability. The well-managed industry uses little resources, and prawns pose little risk to other animals or to the environment-- no disease exists among America's freshwater prawns, nor do ponds produce pollution.

The American Heart Association found that freshwater prawns have health benefits, too. They're higher in protein and lower in fat than marine shrimp and also lower triglycerides, or the chemical form of fat in the body. High triglyceride levels are linked to heart disease.

Plus, with a growing demand for fresh, non-treated food comes a growing demand for freshwater prawns.

Rob Wibbeler, secretary/treasurer of the Indiana Aquaculture Association, Inc., explains that locally produced products are not only fresher, but consumers know the products' growth conditions.

Jerry doesn't use any chemicals with his prawns. He feeds them a distillers' grain -- the unfermented corn and yeast leftover in the process of making whiskey -- every third day from a rusty, tan blower that he attaches to the back of one of his four-wheelers. He says he started using the $120-per-ton grain after the price of fish feed spiked to $550 per ton.

"Every dollar I cut is a dollar I have in my pocket," Jerry says.

Yet, he says the feed is quality chow that works just as well, and contains 24 percent protein versus eight percent in the old feed.

The blower increases his efficiency and reduces his carbon footprint. Wibbeler says a United Nations study found that the carbon footprint of seafood production is 87 times less when food is grown within 250 miles of consumption. That's a significant savings considering that 84 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported.

Despite the bountiful benefits, buying local products can be problematic. Shawn Coyle, owner of the Thoroughbred Shrimp Company in Frankfort, Ky., says: "The bottom line is we can't compete with Asia. We just can't go into mainstream grocery markets."

Coyle says that most producers, like Jerry, sell their prawns at the pond bank. However, consumers have to do their own processing. The tail meat -- the edible part of the prawn -- amounts to only about 40 percent of the prawn itself.

Tom Springstun, extension educator for agriculture and natural resources of the Purdue Extension office says that consumers are essentially paying double for what they are eating. "There's really no way a farmer could compete with going to a grocery store and buying it." The grocery stores sell just the meat, meaning you pay only for what you eat.

Jerry isn't making much money from raising his prawns. The post-larvae he buys from Coyle at the end of May cost him 10 cents each. He stocks 5,000 prawns in each of his three ponds, bringing the total cost of stocking the ponds to $1,500. Add to that the cost of feed and electricity to operate the aerators that circulate oxygen to the prawns.

"Where we make the most is just the fun of the day," Kristie says. "We have a lot of people in here. How many people can say they raise freshwater shrimp in Indiana?"

The industry has certainly piqued interest in the Hoosier state, and Wibbeler says he continues to get a surprising number of calls. When the Pellman home phone rings, it's usually for Jerry, and this time Chris just shakes his head.

"We get phone calls all the time," Chris says.

Aqua-minded Hoosiers know they can call Jerry for some advice or information because he works with Springstun and the Purdue Extension office in promoting Indiana aquaculture and gives seminars on prawn farming.

Wibbeler says of Jerry: "He would be a great mentor for anyone who wants to start out."

The animals know that the sight of the white pickup truck means that Jerry's bringing them food and treats. Normally, Jerry tends to the animals alone, but today he has company.

"No, he's not going to let me out this time. He even closed the door on me," Kristie laughs as she struggles to climb out of the backseat of the two-door.

"Oh, did I shut you out? I forgot. I'm not used to anyone sitting behind me," Jerry says.

Jerry moves toward the cows. "We'll be married 24 years this April," Kristie shares.

Even though the husband-and-wife exchanges include the run-of-the-mill teasing, the Pellman farm is anything but ordinary. The prawns in the pond aren't the only unexpected animals you'll find at their farm. They advertise themselves on the Internet as "Navilleton's Extraordinary Animals," and currently seven buffalo, two alpacas and 16 myotonic -- fainting -- goats all call the farm home.

Myotonic goats drop in their tracks when they get excited or scared. One time, Jerry says he came home in his rumbling truck, and the goats just toppled. "They went down into the grass and I went, 'Oh no, what if I killed them?' and they jumped back up and took off again."

Of course, when Jerry tries to scare them for visitors with a clap of the hands and a loud shout, the goats just ignore him and keep vying for the feed the Pellmans just deposited in their trough.

At one point, the Pellmans had ostriches, frizzles -- chickens that look as if they went through a wind tunnel backwards -- and llamas. They even went to Kentucky to look at a kangaroo advertised on Craigslist.

"I went to work and I was talking to some of my fellow employees and I said, 'Yeah, we went and looked at a kangaroo' and she said, 'Don't you all have any normal animals?'" Kristie says. "Craigslist can be a bad thing."

Jerry not only uses the Internet to find deals, but to run his farm. He'll Google anything he doesn't know, and Kristie uses the Internet for pre-orders and selling her myotonic goats.

Yet, the man who openly praises the virtues of Google and Craigslist hates cell phones. "It's just ringing and bothering you. It's good, I guess, if you have to have one, but I just don't like 'em that well," Jerry says.

What he does like is talking to people. The Pellmans are not shy about showing visitors around the animals on the farm. Jerry lets Boy Scouts camp out in the backyard, gives tours to the third-graders who walk over during their yearly field trip to the one-room schoolhouse down Navilleton Road and routinely shows his animals to strangers who stop when they see the buffalo statue at the head of the driveway.

"I try to be friendly to people," Jerry says.

The Pellman family has been on that patch of land in Floyd County since 1836; Jerry's grandparents came over from Germany in 1832, briefly lived in Louisville and then settled in Indiana. The Pellman farm is one of 4,500 in the state of Indiana to be honored with the Hoosier Homestead Award, given to families who have owned the same farm for 100 or more years. Floyd County boasts 15 Hoosier Homesteads.

Jerry's grandfather harvested strawberries on the land; now Jerry is doing whatever he can to keep the place running. He says he can't really make a living farming the 40 acres, but he tries to keep the farm viable with his unusual animals, which attract attention.

Jerry works construction to make money, and Kristie is a rural mail carrier at the Greenville Post Office. Chris is a part-time firefighter.

As Jerry talks, Sean's texting on a green cell phone. Then he and Jerry talk about how the Pellman men keep the farm running.

Sean says the four men alone keep the farm running.

Jerry nods in agreement, and says he's lucky to have so much help from his sons.

The boys' interest in the family farm means a long future on the Pellman land.

"I think all of us wouldn't want anywhere but here. We all plan on building houses back on the property and living here to keep out the family farm for as long as we can keep it up," Sean says.

The boys wouldn't say what unusual animals they plan on having when they take over, but they were quick to point out that the ostriches were their idea in the first place.

"For me, it's just keeping the farm in the family. They find out that we have buffalo and we do shrimp, and everyone's like,'You do what?' So it's just something different," Chris says.

Jerry says he doesn't know how long he'll raise the prawns -- until he puts something else in the ponds, he guesses. But, for now, he's going to fill his ponds, hitch his 200-gallon tank to the back of his truck and spend his 10 minutes a day with the prawns all summer so that this September, he'll be out there harvesting.

"Whatever you're doing, you need to enjoy it whether it's work, whether it's play, whether your work is play," he says.

Play on, Jerry. Play on.