Description of the Project
Freshwater Prawns harvested from Kentucky State University’s research ponds were donated to the aquaculture graduate student club, the “Aquabreds”. The Aquabreds sold the prawns fresh and whole on drained ice at three nearby farmers’ markets and one seasonal festival in order to evaluate the potential for such markets as a retail outlet for local shrimp growers. The proceeds will be used for student travel to conferences to present the findings and other research outcomes.
All prawns sold were properly chill-killed in ice water for 10-15 minutes before being stored on drained ice overnight for sale at the next day’s market. The prawns were large due to a good, hot, growing season, and averaged about twelve per pound at time of sale. The Aquabreds sold the prawns at the Franklin County (Frankfort), farmers’ market on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (September 14-16).
They were also sold at the Franklin County, St. Matthew’s (Louisville), and the Bluegrass (Lexington) farmers’ markets on Saturday, the 18th of September. Also, on the afternoon of the 18th, shrimp were taken to the Chinese Moon Festival in Lexington, an annual autumnal celebration that coincides well with the shrimp harvest season.
In the weeks prior to the market sales, we advertised the fact that there would be freshwater shrimp at the markets by contacting local newspapers in Frankfort and Lexington, both of which ran small stories about the sale free of charge, and we also made sure that the farmers’ markets mentioned the shrimp sale in their weekly e-mail/blog/newsletters. Being at KSU, we also took advantage of the school’s electronic message board on Main Street to promote the sales.
The prawns received an unexpected promotion at the Louisville farmer’s market on the day of the sale because a local news team showed up to cover the market and talked to one of our graduate students on the air about the prawns. At the Franklin County Market, Angela Caporelli, of Kentucky Department of Agriculture held cooking demos and served up samples of the product while selling frozen freshwater shrimp tails for the Kentucky Aquaculture Association the week before, which also undoubtedly helped to build interest and acceptance of the product.
Prawns were sold for $8/lb at all farmers’ markets as that was judged to be a fair price for both farmers and consumers. At the Chinese Moon Festival, the shrimp were sold at varying prices as part of a marketing study to determine what price the consumers were truly willing to pay, so the majority of the shrimp sold there were sold at around $6/lb.
Initially, we were unsure of how much could be sold at the weekday farmers’ markets (which have far smaller crowds than the Saturday markets) so we sold out within two and a half hours at the first market day on Tuesday. Also, on Saturday, we sold out early at several markets (see comments, table 1), and could have easily sold more shrimp (possibly 20-50 more lbs) at these markets.
As can be seen in table 1, sales were around 40-50 pounds at the weekday markets (Sept. 14 - 16) and above 100 pounds at each of the Saturday markets (Sept. 18), and could have been more at several of them. Most consumers were willing to pay the $8/lb price, and many people who were more familiar with purchasing fresh (wild-caught) shrimp said that $8/lb was comparatively cheap.
The customers at these farmer’s markets are willing to spend a little more on locally-produced food, and freshwater prawns give them the opportunity to enjoy gourmet “seafood” while still eating local.
Many customers were unsure of how to use the whole prawn product, so hand-outs describing how to process and cook the shrimp, and especially how to use the heads (in stocks, etc.) proved to be particularly encouraging to undecided customers. Some customers said that they would only buy shrimp if they were tails-only. Many customers came to the market specifically to buy prawns after seeing the article in the newspaper. Since prawns are a unique product and draw people to the market that might otherwise not come, the market managers and other vendors seemed pleased to have someone selling prawns at their markets.
The key to any thriving business is repeat customers, and while the duration of this sale was too short to see the true extent of the repeat-customer market, results were encouraging. At the Franklin County market, we had multiple repeat customers who bought a pound the first time, and after cooking them up at home, came back on a later day to buy more. Many people at all markets also asked if we would be back next week and expressed disappointment that we would not.
Also, several customers who purchased shrimp from our KSU shrimp sale last year eagerly came back and found us again this year to buy large amounts of shrimp (5-10 pounds). It would seem that once people try this fresh, local product, they are very willing to come back and buy more. Also encouraging is the fact that so many shrimp were sold at the Franklin County Market on all four days of the week that we were there, which shows that the customer base is fairly large and that the success of the sales was not entirely due to its “one-day- only” nature.
Holding Prawns on drained ice
The prawns sold were initially weighed live, right after harvest from the ponds, and then chill-killed and placed into coolers on drained ice. It was observed at all markets that it seemed as though the prawns lost a significant amount of weight as they sat on ice. It is probable that this is mainly due to the water loss that occurs when the prawns are killed, causing their book-lungs to empty of the water that they hold while the prawns were alive (and initially weighed).
This weight loss, however, will result in a decreased profit for the farmer if break-even and sale- prices are determined based on live weight. Further studies on this matter will be looked into at KSU in the future. Also contributing to the fact that fewer pounds were sold from the coolers than were originally placed into the coolers is the fact that very small, damaged, soft, or otherwise ugly prawns were not sold, and a little extra weight was generally included with each sale, which may add up to a significant amount by the end of the day.
Table 1. Freshwater Prawn sales at several farmers’ markets from September 14-18, 2010.
Local farmers’ markets in or near larger cities in Kentucky seem to be a potentially valuable direct-retail outlet for freshwater shrimp producers in the state. Customers at these markets appreciate the unique and local attributes of the fresh product and are willing to pay $8/lb.
Each market has different rules and fees for obtaining booth space, and these must be considered against potential sales when committing to such a market, but it seems that most markets are happy to have a prawn farmer in their market, as it is a unique and popular product. If a small-scale shrimp producer could extend his harvest over the course of several weeks, then membership in a single farmers’ market could allow him to sell a fairly large amount of his product at retail price.
Advanced advertising and cooked samples seem to be beneficial for sales. Since purchasing whole shrimp is a new experience for many people, the marketer must make sure that the customer has the best experience possible with the product. This includes handing out informational materials on how to handle, store and cook the shrimp, as well as strict attention to quality control. The shrimp must be stored in coolers such that all melt water can drain, as shrimp that are left in water will become mushy and un-sellable. Any excessively soft, damaged or otherwise unappealing shrimp should absolutely not be sold to customers, as a single negative experience can turn a customer (and everyone they talk to!) off of the product forever.
Also, having cheap coolers or cooler bags available for sale, along with clean ice to pack with the shrimp would allow more customers to purchase the product and get it home safely. Many customers also asked about the availability of frozen tails or Tilapia, so a farmer with a more diverse array of aquaculture products could probably do very well at these markets. More research on weight-loss of fresh shrimp on drained ice is needed to determine whether retail price needs to be adjusted to prove profitable to the producer.
Any farmers interested in getting involved in selling their product at farmers’ markets can contact KSU Aquaculture for support and help with marketing materials, proper procedures, and advice.