The purpose of this SARE grant is to enable the Desert Sweet Shrimp farm to accommodate farm tours and to develop a direct marketing system for the shrimp.
Desert Sweet Shrimp began experiments in 1995 to grow shrimp and sell them as brood stock for overseas hatcheries. A surprising result was that the shrimp produced had a light, sweet taste that people rated as the best they had eaten. That response prompted the operation to build more production ponds.
In 2000, a desire to improve market opportunities and to respond to requests for tours motivated Desert Sweet Shrimp to apply for a SARE grant. Instead of marketing through traditional sales channels in which retail prices for their shrimp were two or three times the farm price, project coordinator Gary Wood wanted to sell the shrimp directly to consumers, eliminating the markup and extracting greater value at the farm level. Also, before the grant the farm was receiving a dozen calls a week from people or groups interested in visiting the farm. But because the farm is bio-secure, protective clothing was needed so the tours could be conducted without contaminating the farm.
Desert Sweet Shrimp now conducts farm tours Wednesday through Sunday, with visits from individuals, families, school groups and as many as 100 people belonging to farm clubs and other organizations. In addition, the project team has started two restaurants in Phoenix and sent the product nationwide in response to phone and Internet orders.
A trailer has been placed on the farm for use as the staging area for the farm tours and through which on-farm sales are made directly to the public. The farm tours are conducted by a trained tour guide or farmer mangers. If tour participants buy shrimp, the tour is free. Otherwise a fee is charged. Plans now call for a major tour facility on the farm, which will offer educational information and a place for schools and other groups of 30 or more to visit without having to endure the Arizona heat. The facility will have a small store, bathrooms and an outdoor garden area that can accommodate several hundred people at a time.
Meanwhile, says Wood, establishing a direct market for the product has become the project team’s major objective. He notes that the market price for shrimp has fallen by half in recent years as China and other Asian countries have “dumped” shrimp into the United States.
“The only reasonable outlet for our shrimp is through direct sales,” says Wood, noting that the project team has started two restaurants to help alleviate this price pressure. The full-service restaurants in the Phoenix area, with the name Desert Sweet Shrimp, feature a wide range of menu items, including shrimp gumbo, shrimp chowder, shrimp pizza, shrimp burritos and tempura shrimp.
The company has also established a Web site, www.desertsweetshrimp.com, through which customers can order shrimp as well as obtain recipes and other information about the farm. Wood says that Internet sales have been steady although low in volume. People who place orders typically first visit the Web site, which has help to spread information about the farm.
Wood says the farm raised around 270,000 pounds of shrimp in 2001, an amount that could be increased fourfold on the farm if the direct market could absorb it.
“Unfortunately, our direct marketing is not able to keep pace with our production, and we generally have to sell some of our shrimp into the general market at ocean shrimp prices,” says Wood. “We still have a long way to go to be able to direct market with a positive cash flow.”
The hope, he says, is to continue the momentum generated in recent years, expanding distribution into general grocery stores (which number in the hundreds in the Phoenix area) instead of just the dozen or so health food stores that currently carry the shrimp.
The local community has benefited by the number of visitors who travel to the farm and use the local restaurants and service stations in the nearby town of Gila Bend. Several service stations and local markets carry Desert Sweet Shrimp in their frozen foods sections. Indeed, the city of Gila Bend has suggested launching an annual shrimp festival promoting the area as the shrimp capital of Arizona.
RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
While the restaurants have proved to be good outlets for the shrimp and provided increased publicity, Wood says that they have stressed the farm’s resources. He observes that there are big differences between the type of person it takes to run a farm and the type needed in the service industry.
DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS
Wood says the farm tours have been a public relations success. Combined with its operation as a sustainable farm, the publicity has helped Desert Sweet Shrimp achieve name recognition for its brand. Stories about the farm, its shrimp and its tours have appeared in local magazines and newspapers and on local television. CNN has done a story on the operation as have airline and farm magazines. Wood credits the farm tours with being the catalyst for the exposure.
“Public awareness of our shrimp in the Phoenix area has been quite high,” says Wood. “It is a common occurrence for people to see the name Desert Sweet Shrimp and for them to tell us how they have seen a story about our farm and plan to make a trip to the farm for a tour.”