At this farm, the crop is crawfish

May 19, 1991|By Lynn Williams

It's not a bad way to spend a day at work.

Rebecca Dorsey's working wardrobe includes T-shirts and shorts, and her "office" is a 35-acre farm, studded with ponds and ringed by woods, on the Eastern Shore. She can take her dog to work, too: Shad, a chocolate Labrador retriever, dives with gusto in and out of the ponds, and tries to entice a visitor into a game of stick-toss.

It was a balmy, sunny Wednesday in May when a reporter drove down a country lane near Cambridge to the Pyramid crawfish farm. There, Ms. Dorsey and her burly assistant Gary Marshall were in the process of sorting through a basket of wriggling, just-caught crawfish and tossing the undersized specimens back into the water. (An occasional toss would catch the eye of the curious Shad, who would splashingly follow the liberated crustacean into the pond.) In a distant pond a snowy egret was taking to the sky, and a mallard pair waddled along the dike.

It looks like an idyllic existence -- if you don't mind a work day that lasts from dawn to dusk. Working six (and sometimes, in season, seven) days a week, the young manager of Pyramid Farms Crayfish Inc. is at the farm by dawn to test the water quality of the ponds. Harvesting begins early, so that it can be finished before the sun is at its zenith. The afternoon's tasks include packing the creatures with chemical ice, and driving to the airport at the end of the day to launch a shipment of live crawfish to a customer.

Pyramid Farms is one of just a handful of aquaculture ventures designed to farm the freshwater crustaceans (which resemble mini-lobsters only 4 or 5 inches long) in Maryland. According to Ms. Dorsey, Pyramid is one of three major commercial operations on the Eastern Shore, and a survey by the state Department of Agriculture discovered about 50 "mom and pop" one-pond businesses.

Pyramid Farms (so called for its location off Egypt Road) was started by Nelson Hendler, a Stevenson psychiatrist who owns the property. His entry into the crawfish business was, he says, pure serendipity. He was hunting on his land with a friend, John Blumenthal, whose company, Powerhouse Inc., makes aerator systems for fish farms. Mr. Blumenthal observed that the land would be ideal for aquaculture. Fish were a possibility, but the requirements for crawfish farming were less stringent, and the results less risky.

Two years ago this month the farm, consisting of three 10-acre ponds surrounded by a 5-acre moat, was set up. In preparation for their new residents -- 300 pounds of crawfish from Louisiana, Florida and the Carolinas -- the new ponds were stocked with pH-balanced well-water, and a pumping system was installed to keep the water circulating.

Dr. Hendler is proud of the fact that his farm is totally organic, and his crawfish are fed on grain grown without fertilizers or pesticides. The purity of the operation makes his final product superior in taste, he contends, to crawfish taken from waters "10 miles downstream from oil wells."

When the operation was ready to go, Dr. Hendler hired Ms. Dorsey, who had studied marine biology at Duke University, to manage the business. While she runs the day-to-day operations, Dr. Hendler also has a hands-on role. In addition to his administrative tasks, he edited the company's cookbook, "Cooking Crayfish," collecting recipes and even soliciting a few from chefs at Sabatino's and Dominique's. As a member of the Hendler's Ice Cream family, he has plenty of contacts in the food business.

Ms. Dorsey admits that her knowledge of crawfish was rudimentary before she took the Pyramid job.

"The first crawfish I had were preboiled and prefrozen from Louisiana. I got them at a market in Annapolis," she says. "I said, 'Wow, these are pretty good! You know, I'm kind of excited about this!' Then I tasted mine!"

Her crawfish are a mixture of Red Swamp, a dark crawfish with vivid red spotted claws, and White River, a lighter brown shading to peach.

"Seasoned Cajuns say there is a difference in taste, but I can't tell," Ms. Dorsey admits. Mr. Marshall can, though. Not a Cajun, but a seasoned Maryland crabber, he pronounces the White River superior in both taste and texture.

His jobs include helping make and set the crawfish traps, bell-shaped mesh containers with funnels at the bottom through which the crawfish can get in, and white collars around the top to keep them from crawling out. For bait, Ms. Dorsey says, "We use any smelly, oily fish, something really disgusting and cheap. Alewives are the most readily available."

Mr. Marshall is also responsible for protecting his charges from predators, which include raccoons and, most seriously, bullfrogs. The big frogs are capable of swallowing a crawfish whole. To keep them in check, he rides around the property in the early morning hours and shoots any frogs he spots. Their meaty legs, he says, are "the delicacy you pay $12 to $14 a dozen for."

The partners harvest one pond each working morning, using a boat made for maneuvering in shallow water.

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