When an entrepreneur meets agriculture, things tend to get larger than life. Gene Wiseman hopes the larger-than-normal, freshwater shrimp coming from the ponds at Barbee Farms in Kenly, N.C., portends a sign of things to come.

Wiseman, an entrepreneur who has photography, storage and trailer park businesses, first saw an Illinois farmer harvesting the large, fresh-water shrimp on a television program. “I said, ‘If they can do it, why can't we?’”

Wiseman talked his farming friends, Johnny and Doug Barbee, into giving it a go two years ago. Tobacco, soybean and hay farmers, the Barbees had already begun the process of diversifying after seeing their tobacco quota cut in half since 1997.

They traveled to Mississippi to learn the culture of fresh-water shrimp production and relied heavily on Mike Frinsko, a North Carolina State University area aquaculture agent, based in Trenton, N.C.

After a year of seeing if they could do it, Wiseman and the Barbees, got their operation certified and began selling pond-side to the public. Some 130 patrons bought all the shrimp the trio had to sell.

Frinsko and other aquaculture experts say this type of enterprise has potential for other farmers in aquaculture-friendly North Carolina, but it's still too early to tell what it might end up being. “Marketing is the key.”

Research on fresh-water shrimp has been conducted over the past 20 years. A couple of attempts have been made at freshwater shrimp in North Carolina, but nothing like the scale that Wiseman and the Barbees are undertaking, Frinsko says.

“Everybody in this industry is looking to see whether the industry is going to take off,” Frinsko says. Much of the world's freshwater shrimp supply comes from Southeast Asia and Central America. Freshwater shrimp ponds in the U.S. are normally one to two acre enterprises.

Freshwater shrimp are larger than the saltwater variety. Their flesh has a lobster texture and their claws look like miniature lobster pinchers. More than 130 locals showed up to buy the shrimp when he drained a pond on Oct. 2.

As the 2 million gallon pond drained in mid-October, emptying out the shrimp into a pipe that leads to a holding tank, Wiseman discussed the process.

“Water quality is the key to raising fresh-water shrimp,” Wiseman says, who spent six months researching the project.

They bought the juvenile shrimp from Mississippi, but have plans to grow their own next year.

After the ponds are filled with water and shrimp, the pH, temperature and ammonia levels become the most important production aspects. A pH between 7.0 and 9.0 is best for shrimp. Wiseman keeps the two, aquifer-fed ponds around a pH of 8.0 to 8.5.

Cottonseed meal, lime and sinkable catfish feed help keep the water pH correct. The lime creates a bloom and eliminates the possibility of aquatic weeds. The cottonseed meal at the bottom of the two-acre ponds helps to balance the pH. In addition to providing nutrition for the shrimp, the sinkable catfish feed, at a rate of 50 pounds per acre, per day, also fertilizes the pond.

The water temperature is crucial for shrimp as well. If it gets below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the shrimp go dormant and eventually die. High temperatures pose problems as well.

“I feel like I've got a degree in water quality,” Wiseman says, as a group of customers begin to line up at a holding tank to watch as the shrimp start to come through a drain pipe.

They had two harvests this year. One in early October — the other in mid-October. For fresh-water shrimp, it's typically a five-month season. That could pose potential challenges for growers, Frinkso says, but the Barbees seem to like to have the product in and out in a relatively short amount of time.

At the first harvest, some 70 percent of the shrimp were jumbos, amounting to 10 to 12 per pound. Some 1,700 pounds of shrimp came out of a pond at the first harvest. The goal is to harvest 1,000 pounds or more per acre.

Frinsko says that's achievable. “If we can exceed the 1,000 pounds per acre, so much the better,” Frinsko says. “We are fairly confident that we can exceed the $6 per pound level. That raises a lot of eyebrows.

Wiseman and the Barbees have plans to build two more ponds next year and add a hatchery and a nursery to propagate their own stock next year. The goal is to build 12 ponds, as well as an amphitheater to entertain potential customers.

Wiseman has visions of attracting tour buses off Interstate 95 and directing them to the ponds during harvest, charging them to take a hay ride to see the action.

“It's that marketing effort that's critical, especially to fresh seafood, and Gene is a marketing guru,” Frinsko says.

Wiseman plans to sell the shrimp to “white-table cloth restaurants” at festivals and also target ethnic markets.

“We're excited,” says Johnny Barbee. “It's like tobacco in that your happiest days are when you put them in and when you take them out.”

“There's a lot of potential for this type of aquaculture business,” says Matt Parker with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “With the tobacco buyout going through, there will be a lot of people with small acreage looking for something with profit potential.

“The key,” Parker says, “is finding a market and being able to sell your product. Gene's been selling them even before he built the ponds.”

The NCDA has two aquaculture agents. The North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension has four aquaculture agents located throughout the state.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com