Saltwater gold

Sherra Thomason of the Texas Historical Foundation bought several boxes of organic Permian Sea Shrimp from proprietor Bart Reid on her way home from a statewide meeting in Fort Davis. Thomason detoured 25 miles off IH-10 to visit the Imperial, Texas store. Reid says that in the future he may open an outlet in Fort Stockton, but in the meantime he's happy to ship to customers. (Photo by Elaine Wolff)

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.

Permian Sea Shrimp Store
Corner of Hwy 1053 and FM 11
Imperial, Texas
(432) 536-2280
Shipping available; free shipping on some orders
Bart Reid, a lean, voluble native of Fort Worth, came west to assist in the A&M study and never left. A marine biologist with a master's degree, Reid spent some years out east, studying shrimp and shrimp farming in Florida and North Carolina. When he arrived in Imperial, the shrimp market was booming and prices were high. Not only was the Permian Sea water perfect for growing an adaptable variety of Pacific shrimp - "The babies come into bays to grow up," says Reid, an environment the farms mimic - but the infrastructure built by the oil industry made it possible to start a shrimp farm without the extra expense of building roads or bringing in new electrical lines.

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.

"Be informed of what you're eating because it's going to be part of you before too long," he adds. Permian Sea Shrimp was ahead of the curve on that one, though, and it's only recently that grocery store and restaurant distributors have come back to Reid interested in the product for its potential as a premium lifestyle food. In the meantime, the store stays busy through a combination of tourists like the weekend Harley-Davidson crowd, campers taking an alternate route to Big Bend, and mail orders. "This store does an amazing amount of business for being in the middle of nowhere," Reid notes with pride, especially on Fridays when they fry shrimp for the lunch and dinner crowd and Reid has to shout to be heard on the phone.

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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