Gila Bend is the unlikely home of a shrimp farm, let alone one that is back in business.
Workers at Desert Sweet Shrimp recently harvested shrimp for the first time in seven years. International shrimp production increased competition and, inevitably, forced the farm the close.
Shrimp lovers can pick up frozen shrimp for a limited time starting this week at the farm.
“I don’t know why it tastes so good when it comes from out here, just like how they don’t know what makes Vidalia onions from Georgia so special,” said owner Gary Wood.
The business began in 1995 after Wood’s family spent time farming in Ecuador and learned that shrimp grew well in water similar to Arizona’s monsoon season.
“The shrimp absolutely love it here,” Wood said. “You know that 120-degree weather in the summer we all hate? They love that. I think that because of the weather, Arizona can become a competitive place for shrimp farming.”
Growing shrimp away from the ocean requires a certain salinity, which is the measure of salt in water.
“What we’ve done is we’ve taught the animals to live here instead of next to the ocean,” Wood said. “We take those same characteristics and make it so that we can farm here.”
Desert Sweet Shrimp employee Craig Collins said the farm prides itself on being recognized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions for sustainable aquaculture.
“When they go in the gulf they put their nets on the bottom of the ocean floor and tear it up,” Collins said. “That’s one of the reasons why there’s dead zones out there where nothing can live. That’s probably the worst thing they can do. It’s not at all environmentally friendly. This is sustainable.”
The shrimp grown in Gila Bend are known for having a “sweet” and “clean” taste, unlike shrimp taken from the ocean. That’s what brings customer Reed King back every time.
“It is the tastiest shrimp you’ll ever have,” King said. “It really is. If you saw the facilities where the shrimp that come from Asia grows, you’d never eat it.”
Wood said that his shrimp tastes like it should when it’s grown without diseases and pollutants.
“When you go to the grocery store and pick up a bag of shrimp, you can smell it,” Wood said. “I used to not like shrimp because I didn’t like the fishiness of it. When I pick this shrimp up, I can’t smell a thing. It’s got a texture to it unlike any shrimp you’ve ever had. It’s crunchy and feels like you’re biting into an apple.”
In its heyday, Desert Sweet Shrimp was the featured food at the Arizona State Fair and shipped around the country to natural food stores, and local sports bars and grills.
“You know what chefs can do with the shrimp?” Wood said. “They can make desserts with it. They can put it on a bed of strawberries and sweet rice. The reason it works is because of the texture and sweetness of it.”
The business’ success led to a shrimp festival in Gila Bend, attracting visitors from all over the country.
“The town’s only got about 1,500 people,” Wood said. “When we had our shrimp festival, we had around 5,000 people show up from other places in Arizona and bordering states. We had lines out the door to come in and see the process of our farming. We want to get back to that soon.”
Now that the farm has returned to production, only three of 60 ponds available are in use. The business is primarily selling locally to its loyal customers.
“Some of the old chefs we used to sell to are asking me when they are going to be able to serve our shrimp again,” Wood said. “With the high demand from people who remember us, I don’t think we’re going to be able to make any promises. If we’re successful this year, we’ll be able to make more next year and get back to where we were.”
King, who grew up in Buckeye and owned a farm down the road from Desert Sweet Shrimp, is one customer who is looking forward to this year’s harvest.
“We just had a family function for 125 people,” King said. “I got 100 skewers of shrimp from Gary and it was the hit of the evening. We had lots of other food, but the shrimp was, without question, the hit.”
King acknowledged that the market for shrimp is competitive, but that he thinks it’s important to shop locally.
“The biggest challenge they face is they’re competing against the Asian shrimp market,” King said. “Price, like so many things in aquaculture, is determinative. That’s really the challenge they’re faced with, because they can produce the product without any question.”