Competition Forces Arizona Shrimp Farmers to Seek Niche
When Gary Wood opened a shrimp farm in the desert nine years ago, people told him it couldn't work.
Today, Wood has partly proved his early critics wrong. Consumers have touted the desert-raised shrimp's flavor and freshness while scientists have commended the farm for practices friendly to the environment.
But as local shrimp farmers have gained their footing, the industry's growth worldwide has also caused prices to drop and exports to increase.
As a whole, Arizona's four shrimp farms have suffered. Shrimp prices fell from about $6 a pound in 2001 to about $3 a pound this year.
Prices aren't expected to improve as production increases around the world, especially in Mexico, China and Vietnam, said Kevin Fitzsimmons, a University of Arizona professor of soil, water and environmental science and an aquaculture specialist for the state.
To compete, Arizona farmers are trying to appeal to other markets with what they tout as a superior product.
Wood, the manager of Desert Sweet Shrimp, phased out his wholesale business last year. Instead, he is selling his shrimp as a gourmet product to the restaurant at Phoenix's Royal Palms Hotel, AJ's Fine Foods and to specialty food stores in Los Angeles. The shrimp sell for $3 to $15 per pound.
Other Arizona shrimp farmers also have looked at different niches, such as Asian restaurants and markets that specialize in live seafood. Those that continue to compete in the wholesale market tout their shrimp as containing no chemicals, preservatives or additives.
Wood said shrimp raised on his farm near Gila Bend _ one of the state's hottest and driest areas _ don't have a moment to decay and can be harvested and delivered to businesses the same day.
Exported shrimp, he said, may have been sitting outside for hours at a time and treated with chemicals.
But while Wood's shrimp have gained fans, it hasn't been enough to make a profit this year. Fitzsimmons said it is too early to tell whether consumers will warm up to the idea of paying more for locally grown shrimp.
Today, Wood has 25 manmade ponds on his farm. The ponds, which range in size from one to two acres each, contain slightly salty well water that stays warm in the summer _ ideal for growing shrimp and the algae they feed on.
When the season begins in May, Wood buys week-old postlarvae shrimp from hatcheries. The shrimp will be full-grown by October.
For the baby shrimp to acclimate to fresh water, they are first put into tanks of salty water that is slowly diluted with fresh water until the shrimp can thrive in the outdoor ponds. The process takes about two to three weeks.
Even with high labor costs and a climate that doesn't allow year-round shrimp farming, Arizona offered enough incentives for Josh Wilkenfeld to pursue this experiment four years ago.
Wilkenfeld is the manager of Arizona Mariculture Associates, a farm that raises shrimp near Hyder.
He points to the state's inexpensive land and underground aquifers with salty water from the Gila and Colorado rivers that are conducive to shrimp farming.
"There are a lot of advantages in Arizona, but shrimp culture is enormously risky, and doing it in the U.S. is the riskiest place to do it," Wilkenfeld said.
On the Net:
Desert Sweet Shrimp:
Arizona Mariculture Associates: