Seven hundred miles from home, Grover Webb slid seven coolers of precious cargo into a Dodge Caravan and hit Texas pavement on I-30, settling in for an 11-hour drive northeast to the familiar comforts of his farm. Inside the coolers, as plastic bags of brown water teemed with life, the murky liquid represented a new step beyond Webb’s Illinois corn and soybean rows: The Pope County grower was about to pull the trigger on a new crop — 70,000 shrimp.
In 2000, Webb counted the capital startup and input costs of shrimp production, built market opportunity with an annual festival and crafted a highly successful seafood addition to his farm operation.
Across 950 acres of rolling hills squeezed between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Webb, alongside his brother, Richard, runs Tanglefoot Ranch. In addition to 70 head of beef cattle, two hoop houses of raspberries, strawberries and tomatoes, and 300 peach trees, Webb grows 500 acres of corn and soybeans.
First Crop Success
In March 2000, he pushed the dirt off an open hillside and built a levee, digging six three-quarter acre shrimp ponds that slanted from 3.5' to 4' deep. Webb ran irrigation pipe an eighth of a mile and filled (supplemented by rainwater) the freshly dug shrimp ponds from old farm ponds.
Shrimp were sourced from Aquaculture of Texas and hauled back to a DIY nursery built in Richard’s basement. Webb placed swimming pool liners inside two repurposed 5,000-gal. tanks (17' diameter) that originally saw action as blue tombstones — Harvestore silo rings.
In June, Webb placed the shrimp into the six outdoor ponds and harvested in the fall. “Our first crop and first year was a success,” he says.
Thomas Wright, a longtime neighbor, initially was skeptical when Webb waded into shrimp farming. “I heard he was going to try shrimp and thought it was bull, but Grover was serious,” Wright says. “When he harvested that first year, I stopped by to help, and Grover wanted to pay me. I said, ’No way. You just paid me with the experience of harvesting the first shrimp ever in southern Illinois.’ ”
In a county housing 4,300 people and heavily shadowed by the Shawnee National Forest, Webb kick-started a market in the county seat: Welcome to the Golconda Shrimp Festival. Now in its 20th consecutive year, more than 6,000 people attend the one-day event in September.
Floating Dollar Bills
Each April, Webb starts with 70,000, 33-day old shrimp in the nursery. Fed with an oversized saltshaker, the shrimp consume 25 lb. of feed during a 45-day stay in the temperature-controlled (80°F) tanks until the outdoor pond water hits 72° F, typically in late May or June.
The climate of southern Illinois is surprisingly ideal for freshwater shrimp, according to Webb: “You want the water to stay at 80°F or 85°F. Go north and it’s too cold; go south and it’s too hot for maximum growth.”
After placement in the ponds, Webb broadcasts feed with a leaf blower positioned under an old cylinder-shaped nursery pig feeder mounted on a four-wheeler. Foregoing the expense of traditional feed, he uses a 36% protein pellet and sprays 50 lb. of feed each day across the six ponds.
Monitoring the oxygen level of each pond is critical. When oxygen gets low, Webb uses a tractor to back his self-made aerator (a modified silage blower that’s PTO driven) into the pond and set things right in about an hour and a half.
When the mercury drops to 60°F, usually 120 days after placement in the ponds, shrimp harvest begins, with 10 to 12 live animals per pound.
Harvest requires a bit of herding: The shrimp have to swim out of the ponds. Each pond has a 10" pipe through the bottom of the levee. When the pipe’s end-cap is removed, it creates a whirlpool. When the pond is almost empty, the shrimp swim with the flow and into the pipe.
Webb’s crew stands at the pipe’s opening with dip nets, backed by a box and screen in case any shrimp skirt the nets. The shrimp are dropped in a water tank filled with ice to chill and then taken to a shed. Pop off the heads, rinse, bag and freeze.
“Low tech, no expensive equipment and minimal processing,” he says.
Find the Right Fit
What advice does Webb offer potential shrimp producers? “If you have an area that holds water, a few ponds might be a fit. Don’t worry about being the biggest producer: Just make sure the quality is excellent and do what fits your land.”
Learn more from Grover Webb’s 20 years of shrimp production experience at AgWeb.com/Grover-Webb