Spring planting is several months away, but soybean producers are currently more than a little worried. The agriculture department is considering reducing subsidies for soybean production.
Various studies have indicated the soybean subsidy is too high compared to support levels for other commodities. Reducing it would save the government as much as a billion dollars. Not surprisingly farm and industry groups are lobbying the USDA to maintain subsidy levels.
The fact the prospect of reducing subsidy levels is so controversial is perhaps ample evidence of the financial dependence farmers have developed on the government. But, many in farm country are searching and finding alternative, market- driven crops. Producer David Miller found such an effort underway recently in Kentucky.
Near Mount Sterling, Kentucky, David and Jennifer Marsh of Gregnon Farms, are harvesting one of Kentucky's newest crops: freshwater shrimp.
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture estimates about 60 producers are actively pursuing this type of aquaculture, but all indications are that shrimp production will play a more significant role in agriculture in the Bluegrass State.
Jennifer Marsh, Gregnon Farms: "It's an underwater feed lot, but it's not like the cattle out here that you can kind of check their health everyday and see how everybody's doing, you just put them in and then wait, feed and wait."
Many of the people raising shrimp are doing so as a hedge against shrinking tobacco allotments, but the Marshs, who spent the past 20 years living, working and raising a family in Louisville, had been looking for an agricultural venture that would allow them to return to the land.
Jennifer Marsh, is a professor of biology at Louisville State University and an intellectual property lawyer. In the late 90s, she was appointed to the state's aquaculture task force. The first meeting became a turning point in her life.
Jennifer Marsh, Gregnon Farms: "At that first aquaculture task force, I'm not kidding, I left that meeting saying this is it, this is so cool, this is raising shrimp in Kentucky. And it has biology and it has water chemistry which is what I, that's what I do is is water, it has all the, you know, just the, how do you get other people interested in this? Just, that's where the light went on."
Her husband David telecommutes to his job as the ebusiness manager for Blackmeer Pumps, a Michigan-based pump manufacturer. Like Jennifer, he sees shrimp as an opportunity to add value to a crop and sell it at a profit. During their first harvest in 2000, David became convinced this was the right thing to do.
David Marsh, Gregnon Farms:"...we were at the trench last year, pulling the water down, and we were at that kind of point where all of a sudden, you just sort of look out and the whole horizon is alive with animals marching toward you at the harvest point, and that I think, when I saw that, I go, okay, this is doable, this is going to work."
The 130-acres that make up their Montgomery County farm came with a five-acre tobacco allotment and a large amount of pastureland. The Marsh's split the production of their tobacco allotment with another farmer and lease a portion of the pasture to another producer who runs 50 head of cattle.
Their four 1/2-acre ponds cost approximately 6-thousand each to build and fill with 10-thousand juvenile shrimp. After approximately four months of twice daily feeding the shrimp are ready to harvest. The Marshs expect each pond to yield about 500 pounds of adult shrimp. If sold directly to the public the shrimp can garner ten dollars per pound. By direct marketing the Marsh's plan to reap at least a 50% return on their investment.
To encourage the growth of the industry, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is offering loans to pay for 65% of the cost of the construction of each pond. The loans are funded with the state's portion of the federal tobacco lawsuit settlement. Though the Marshs financed their ponds themselves, they are excited the K-D-A is working to encourage shrimp production.
As part of the Marsh's marketing program, they sell directly to white-tablecloth restaurants in Louisville, 110 miles away, as well as to local establishments like the Mount Sterling Golf and Country Club. Head Chef and Clubhouse Manager Joe Deitsch, likes the idea of being able to serve his customers a fresh seafood product grown in Kentucky.
Joe Deitsch, Mount Sterling Golf and Country Club: "It's superior in the fact that you are getting a fresh product in. I mean, you know, they're catching it and it's a one day turn around. Where as a lot of times you get some fresh product in, especially with being this far into the United States, you really don't know whether it's actually one day fresh or whether it's three or four days fresh."
The Marshs also sell directly to interested customers; some of whom arrive during the several days it takes to bring in the harvest. But they see this time as more than just an opportunity to make sales. The harvest days serve as a way to show prospective producers what shrimp production might be like. Some of them even assist the gathered friends, family, and hired hands with the work.
The results of the 2001 harvest were smaller than the Marshs had hoped. Their newest half-acre pond yielded about 435 pounds. Unfortunately, the grand total was only 600 pounds; well short of the expected
2-thousand. Even so, the Marshs are still up beat about next year.
David Marsh, Gregnon Farms: "This is farming. With good luck comes bad luck. I think in looking at this and I look at the glass half full of water."
To prevent future producers from having the same results, the Marshs have identified the problem and will add the solution to their knowledge base. That "base" is integral to their newly formed " Kentucky Shrimp Growers Cooperative." The co-op will provide members with increased buying and marketing power. To further define their identity the group branded its product as "Kentucky Blue Claw Shrimp." Future plans include the construction of hatchery and processing facilities. The co-op now has twenty active members and 100 more that have expressed an interest in getting started.
One of the members is Phillip McDonald who lives just outside of Carlisle, Kentucky. McDonald has an off farm job as a partner in an excavating service. In early 2001, McDonald formed McK's Shrimp Farm with his father-in-law Ken Knapke.
McDonald, who can trace his farming roots back to the end of the 19th century, raises 75 beef cattle and leases two acres of tobacco to another producer.
Phillip McDonald, McK's Shrimp Farm: "I felt like could do the feedlot thing, why not I couldn't do the shrimp. And it kind of worked hand-in-hand with the lay of the land and the opportunity."
Though McK's shrimp farm was built with family funds they have applied for one of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's construction loans to recover some of their costs.
In the early part of September 2001, as they prepared to bring in their first harvest, the pond's ecosystem became unbalanced and most of the shrimp died. The expected harvest of 500 pounds became a disappointing 20. But the loss has not discouraged McDonald.
Phillip McDonald, McK's Shrimp Farm: "As my father-in-law would say we're a failure but we're not quitters. We have failed this year in our shrimp production but we won't quit."
This thought is echoed by the Marshs who
remain convinced freshwater shrimp production will continue to expand in Kentucky.
David Marsh, Gregnon Farms: " If we can help other people get into this program and create a bigger inventory, and that's the thing that is important to me, so that we've got two or three, four hundred thousand pounds of shrimp that we can sell, we can be a driving force in this economy."
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller