The Permian Basin yields another valuable resource
Driving north by northeast out of the Davis mountains of West Texas, we hit the Permian Basin plain like a bug colliding with a windshield: a hard, deadly flat fact. "It's so desolate," our friend behind the wheel repeats in monotone. The landscape is devoid of the faintest undulation; we can almost see the wind turbines slowly rotating on the plateaus some 20 miles beyond Fort Stockton. The Permian Basin is aptly named: Its modern development, such as it is, has been shaped by natural resources that originated in a time before Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the future banks of the Paluxy River. Rusty brown oil derricks are visible above the low scrub bushes and gnarled trees, but the Texas oil industry heyday is long gone. Around tiny Imperial, the derricks that once bobbed rhythmically - giving rise to the two-cow deductible in ranching insurance because cows don't have the sense to avoid meandering under them in their search for grass to munch - are mostly silent reminders that economic opportunities out here are few and far between.
But the planet's geologic machinations left another treasure beneath the hard plain: remnants of the Permian Sea that covered a large portion of the state some 270 million years ago, sandwiched between gravel and clay. As far back as the industrious 1950s, enterprising businessmen were trying to figure out how to make money from the underground sea, whose salinity is approximately 12 parts per 1000 - comparable to bay water. Too saline to be potable, but considerably less salty than the open ocean. It wasn't until Texas
A&M and the local groundwater district spearheaded new research in the early '90s that folks turned a speculation - that shrimp could be raised like cattle on the West Texas plains - into a fledgling industry.
As the technology for growing shrimp in large, shallow, man-made bays was perfected, the local industry grew to a peak of six farms, including Reid's Permian Sea Shrimp, by the end of the decade, but a price drop caused by cheaper Asian imports has whittled that number down to three. "The Gulf `shrimping` industry is going under." Reid shakes his head. "The farming industry may be on its heels." Foreign competition has precipitated cooperation among the remaining farmers.
Reid looks every inch the West Texas rancher, but nowadays he's one part impresario and one part storefront. Permian Sea Shrimp has become the distributor for other area farms, and tough economic times have also forced Reid to re-think his market: Last year, Permian Sea Shrimp became the first shrimp producer to be certified organic. "It's all because we have complete control of the environment," says Reid. "Shrimp are omnivorous. They're an animal that will eat anything.
The out-of-the-way locale is one reason Reid won't turn away customers even on Sunday afternoon, his only day off. On an empty lot at the intersection of Highway 1053 and Farm Road 11, a trio of young motocross riders in bright red and blue gear turn dusty circles. Across the street at the homey, unassuming restaurant and store, a suburban full of revelers on their way back from the Fort Davis sesquicentennial are delighted to find an open door. They read about Reid's shrimp on the internet and ventured 25 miles out of their way; they depart with several 5-pound boxes of the jumbo size. One traveler is more interested in the remains of a cheesecake with a crumble top; Reid sells it to him for $2. "How in the world do you do this in the desert?" the man cheerfully shouts on his way out the door. "There ain't enough water in there to drown somebody." •
By Elaine Wolff
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