It is a crop largely unheard of in Tennessee and mostly unseen, growers say. But hundreds of miles from any ocean, about 20 farmers in places such as Springfield, Jackson and Morristown are raising shrimp.
Jane Corbin, a retired school teacher in Springfield, has been raising freshwater shrimp -- technically Malaysian prawns -- on her late parents' farm for five years.
She gets in her boat every day from late May to early October and spreads feed over the water by hand. Though Corbin can see the feed sink,that the shrimp eat it and grow beneath the water is a matter of faith.
"You never see them during the growing season," Corbin said. "It's thrilling at harvest time to finally see them all."
Freshwater shrimp are being raised in 16 states, mostly in the South but also in Illinois and Indiana, according to the Mississippi-based U.S. Freshwater Prawn and Shrimp Growers Association.
Commercial growers are few, but it has growth potential as more consumers discover the crustaceans with a flavor described as milder and sweeter than saltwater shrimp, said Dolores Fratesi, president of the association.
"We are where the catfish industry was 30 years ago," Fratesi said. "With overfishing of the oceans and problems with pollution, farm-raised prawns are something wholesome you can put in front of your family."
Federal reports show that sales of U.S. farm-raised catfish, most of it grown in the Southeast, totaled 300 million pounds in 2004.
Sales of farm-raised shrimp are not tracked, but Fratesi said the growers association hopes to work with state agriculture departments to begin compiling statistics.
In Tennessee, raising shrimp probably ranks "third or fourth," as an aquaculture enterprise, said Rob Beets, a marketing specialist with the state Agriculture Department.
Raising fish in private ponds or lakes and charging anglers to catch them is the most common form of aquaculture in the state, he said, followed by raising catfish.
Raising freshwater shrimp in Tennessee began in 1998, about three years behind its start in Mississippi, the South's aquaculture heartland.
Farmers report varying degrees of success. Most have struggled to find enough buyers for their crop, but they see potential for a wider market.
Still, the lack of a ready market in the state led one couple to quit. Sylvia Jones of Dyersburg said she and her husband, Donnie, are through after raising one crop unless a cooperative marketing program is developed.
Growers such as Corbin and Fratesi think raising freshwater shrimp will increase as demand grows after more people try them. But that will only happen if enough farmers grow them.
"It's sort of a cart-before-the horse situation," Fratesi said.