ABOVE David Teichert-Coddington takes advantage of the salty tinge of the Eutaw Aquifer to grow shrimp in 22 ponds on his property near Demopolis. Photos by Art Meripol
The soothing sounds of gentle waves cannot be heard in the tiny western Alabama town of Boligee. The Gulf Coast, with its balmy breezes and sandy beaches, lies a distant 150 miles to the south.
But Boligee and the surrounding communities actually have something in common with the Gulf of Mexico, and that’s salt water. The underground Eutaw aquifer, which stretches from Mississippi to near Montgomery, contains just enough saline to give the water in the region a salty tinge.
This anomaly has prompted the emergence of a business that you might not expect to find in the Alabama Black Belt. Here amid the cow pastures and catfish ponds, a handful of people are taking a shot at shrimp farming.
David Teichert-Coddington is one of those people. A former assistant professor of fisheries at Auburn University, Teichert-Coddington formed Greene Prairie Shrimp in 2001 and began raising the crustacean on 250 acres of land just north of Demopolis. Like most farmers, his crop and revenue fluctuate from year to year, but his annual production target is to raise at least 273, 000 pounds of sellable shrimp, and on good years his revenues can exceed $1 million.
The son of missionaries, Teichert-Coddington was born in Liberia on the western coast of Africa. He could see the Atlantic Ocean from his family’s cement-block house and spent nearly every day of his childhood in or near the water. “I basically grew up in the ocean, ” he says.
After his family moved back to the United States and Teichert-Coddington graduated from Houghton College in western New York in 1976, he wanted to maintain that connection to the water, even if he no longer lived on the coast.
“So I decided I was going to grow fish, ” he says. “I started looking at catalogues and found out about Auburn. They had both a graduate program in aquaculture and fisheries and an International Center for Aquaculture. At the time, it was really the only aquaculture program of its kind in the world.”
A degree from Auburn University led to a job with Auburn, and for 10 years Teichert-Coddington worked in Panama and then Honduras as part of the school’s fisheries research and development project. He returned to the U.S. in 1995, spent time at Auburn’s fisheries research facility in Gulf Shores, and then was introduced to the salt water of western Alabama.
“In 1999, a guy who grows catfish around here — Dickie Odom — inquired about whether they could grow shrimp in this salty water, ” Teichert-Coddington recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know why not?’ So we started playing around with shrimp and did some experimental stuff. We tried it for a year, had a very poor survival rate, then tried for another year with similar results.
“It seemed like there was a lot of potential, but the only way I was going to figure it out was to get fully involved in it. I had experience with shrimp overseas, with physiology and water chemistry. So when this piece of land came up for sale in the salt-water zone, I quit the university and built the ponds.”
The water temperature needs to be at least 55 degrees for shrimp to survive, so Teichert-Coddington did not stock his ponds for the first time until April of 2001. It was, he says, “an absolute failure.” The baby shrimp, which were each no bigger than an eyelash, were all dead within weeks.
“For any salt-water animal, you have to have certain quantities of sodium and potassium in proper ratio, ” Teichert-Coddington says. “I knew we had enough salt in the ponds, so I deduced that the problem was with insufficient potassium.”
He set up some experimental tanks and, through a process of trial-and-error, finally discovered what seemed to be the correct amount of potassium. So he added this new formula to the ponds, and the mortality rate “just quit overnight.”
“It’s the only silver bullet I’ve ever had in my professional career, ” he says with a smile, adding that his formula is now used by most inland shrimp farmers in the country.
After letting the shrimp grow throughout the hot summer months, Teichert-Coddington began harvesting a truncated crop of 15, 000 pounds of shrimp in September. That was, of course, the same month as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and suddenly there no longer was a market for parties and corporate functions where mounds of shrimp often were the buffet centerpiece.
“We should have gone out of business that first year, ” Teichert-Coddington says. “Our business plan was to sell the shrimp wholesale, but processors said they had nowhere to put them because their warehouses were full. So we just started selling them locally and to a few restaurants in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.”
It took nearly 10 years for Greene Prairie Farms to get on stable financial footing, aided considerably by a deal to sell the shrimp to Whole Foods Markets nationwide. Teichert-Coddington also has a deal with Western Supermarket in Birmingham, and sells as much as he can locally during the fall harvest season.
Business has been successful enough that over the years Teichert-Coddington has more than doubled the number of ponds on the farm from 10 to 22, but he says it hasn’t been easy.
“The technical part of all this is tough, but I’m a technician so I can handle that, ” Teichert-Coddington says. “It’s when we got into the marketing and business side that it got to be a real challenge.”
Indeed, finding buyers for farm-raised shrimp is one of the reasons there are less than a half dozen such businesses in Alabama (along with a few in Texas and Florida). While catfish ponds thrive in the U.S., the vast majority of the shrimp consumed in this country is imported, with much of it coming from Asia.
“There are catfish processors in Alabama and Mississippi that will buy your fish, and then they’re in charge of selling it to the markets, ” says Luke Roy, an aquaculture specialist with Auburn University and the Alabama Fish Farming Center. “It’s different with shrimp, because there aren’t as many processors that will take shrimp like they will catfish.
“It’s definitely a niche market. But there’s a certain amount of pride that comes with producing a healthy, sustainable, American-made product. That appeals to a lot of people, and they’ll pay a higher price for it.”
That is exactly what Teichert-Coddington is counting on, and it’s what keeps him going after 17 years in the business.
“We set out to grow a pure product that is not dependent on antibiotics and chemicals, and that’s what we’ve done, ” he says. “Either you do it right, or you shouldn’t do it at all.”
Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.