Alongside the burgers, pastas and vegetables of the day, MU students have lately dined on locally harvested prawns.
Researchers at MU’s Bradford Research Farm began an experiment three years ago raising juvenile Southeast Asian prawns farmed in Texas. The prawns grow from June to September in ponds and ultimately end up on MU students’ plates poached in butter, barbecued, grilled in chipotle honey or served up tandoori-style.
The yellow-gray creatures with long blue pincers are sweeter than lobster and softer than shrimp, said Eric Cartwright, executive chef of MU's Campus Dining Services. Eighty pounds of the shellfish were harvested Wednesday and delivered to the dining halls in blue coolers packed with ice Thursday morning.
“I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and fresh seafood’s a part of life," Cartwright said. "Here there are trout farms and catfish farms, but to get fresh shellfish is a real treat.”
MU Campus Dining is trying to increase the amount of local food on its tables. Cartwright said around 11 percent of produce, including dairy and meat, is locally grown, and the goal is to push that number to 15 percent.
The residential dining facilities serve more than 2.5 million meals a year to more than 6,000 students. Campus Dining is the Bradford Research Farm’s main buyer.
“It’s about providing the best tasting product, and you can’t beat (locally grown foods),” Cartwright said.
There are pitfalls, like the fact that there are few crops in winter and many types of produce ripen in August, when Campus Dining is closed. Cartwright said Campus Dining has to maximize local produce purchases during the fall and spring months.
During an eight-week period last fall, Campus Dining purchased more than 16,000 pounds of local food. While this year’s numbers haven’t been tabulated, Cartwright said that figure might double.
Although it’s more expensive to buy locally when comparing individual items, Cartwright said Campus Dining has not had to increase its prices, and he views the shift to incorporate local foods as financially neutral.
Two explanations Cartwright gave were that local produce is fresher and less likely to go bad before it’s used and that customers may also like the taste of the food better, and won’t discard it and consume other foods instead.
The effort has paid off so far: Customer satisfaction scores have jumped tremendously for quality and taste, Cartwright said.
At the Bradford Research Farm, researchers harvest the prawns by draining water from the ponds. Farm superintendent Tim Reinbott said he thought prawn farming could take off in Missouri, saying the main market for prawns would be restaurants. He plans to expand the number of ponds at Bradford from two to seven, which would allow researchers to carry out more projects.
“You get so many more pounds of food compared to feed with aquaculture,” Reinbott said.
Reinbott said he read about farming prawns in a magazine and thought the climate in Missouri might be better than that of the South for raising them, as they “don’t like it real hot all the time.”
Since presenting the research at the Missouri State Fair, a handful of farmers have indeed started farming prawns.
“What’s important is to find your market," Reinbott said. "There’s a lot of interest gathering out there.”
The research project has had its pitfalls. Previously, researchers didn’t feed the prawns enough, so they started eating each other.
Reinbott said he hoped continued research would improve stocking rates and yield the larger prawns that restaurants prefer. In the most recent harvest, the prawns were about 19 to a pound, and Reinbott is hoping to reach 15 to a pound.
MU students aren’t the only ones who have feasted on the prawns.
Raccoon prints and a few bullfrogs lingered in two waterless, 100-square-foot beds at the Bradford farm.
“There were bullfrogs with prawns sticking out of their mouths,” Reinbott said. “One ate two, and he just floated there all day. You could see the two of them in his stomach.”