Call it toothy gold, a get-rich quick plan for an area devastated by the crash of the oil market.
Across Louisiana’s marshes, once flush with profits from black gold, small patches of land increasingly are being turned into alligator farms, with investors hoping to quintuple their investments in short order.
“Year before last, there were just under 9,000 farm-raised gators sold” by 37 farms, said Dave Taylor, alligator research coordinator for Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “That number is going to reach 60,000 quickly and could be up to 100,000, certainly, within five years.”
24,000 Trapped in Wilds
That’s in addition to the 24,000 wild alligators trapped each fall in carefully supervised hunts.
Spurred by prices of $37 a linear foot for hides, 21 new farms have opened in the last two years, and “We expect them to produce 18,000 gators,” Taylor said. The waiting list for permits for new farms is about 100.
Jerry Jones Jr., 28, went into business two years ago near Sweetlake and expects to put 12,000 hides a year on the market. His farm is state-of-the-art: automated cleaning, water-source heat pumps, carefully supervised diets.
The result is quicker growth at less cost. “We have some (that) are 5 to 6 feet long in a year and six months. We have 8-month-old gators that are 26 to 30 inches.”
Skins of wild alligators average 7 feet in length, and are used for luggage. Farm-raised gators are skinned at 2 years old and about 4 feet long. Their hides are used for shoes, purses, belts and other smaller high-fashion accouterments requiring smaller patterns on the hides.
For about $30,000 a potential farmer can put up a couple of windowless cinder-block buildings on concrete slabs and be ready to raise 1,000 gators a year. It would take another $25,000 to $30,000 to operate until the gators grow enough to sell. At current prices, 1,000 4-foot hides would bring $148,000.
“The minimum requirements are 1 square foot per alligator up to 2 feet in length and 2 square feet up to 4 feet in length,” Taylor said. Buildings must be able to hold a few inches of water and be kept about 89 degrees.
The first thing is to gather alligator eggs from wild nests, paying landowners for the eggs and committing 17% of the hatch for return to the wild at 4 feet long. That’s a carefully researched percentage designed for zero growth in the population of 1.5 million wild alligators--reached after the alligator was taken off the endangered species list in the mid-1970s.
The wild nests aren’t easy to find, and female alligators guard their eggs--about the only time in their lives that they show maternal instincts.
No task for the timid, Taylor agreed. “But everybody’s got to learn some time or another, if they want to get into farming.
Spot Nests From Air
“Obviously, what would be best, for a guy’s first involvement, would be to hire someone with a little experience in locating nests from the air. That’s the only way to go: Rent a helicopter and go find them and pick them up.”
The success of farming ventures will almost certainly drive prices down, and there are risks any time a market depends on fashion or something volatile, he said. “I don’t think the bottom will fall out of the price. I don’t think they’ll go to $2 a foot. But it certainly could go to half of what it is now.”
Jones, a former trapper, commercial diver and underwater welder who now devotes full time to his farm, agrees with Taylor’s analysis. “A lot of these farms, you’ll see what happens. Prices are good right now, but with all these hides coming on the market, it’s going to have to go down.”
But Jones believes he will survive when others fail because his expenses are low. “Look at it this way, you’ve got an electricity bill of $500 a month to raise 1,000 alligators, and my bill is $150 a month to raise 12,000.”
His major problem is finding enough nutria--small water rodents--to feed the gators. Nutria, or coypus, often are dyed like beaver, Jones said.