Are gator farms in SC’s future?

jholleman@thestate.comFebruary 7, 2014 

An alligator hangs out beneath a bridge at Haig Point Golf course on Daufuskie Island.

BY C. ALUKA BERRY — caberry@thestate.com

Local alligator meat could be the next foodie niche in South Carolina.

The Captive Alligator Propagation Act, sponsored by Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, creates the legal framework for someone in South Carolina to set up a farming operation to raise alligators for slaughter for their meat and hide.

It’s already done in Florida, Georgia, Texas and Louisiana. Grocery stores in South Carolina get their gator meat now from those states. The sale of meat from wild-caught gators is illegal, but farm-raised gators are treated like chickens – with tough hides and big teeth.

“It should be a profitable business,” said Joel Sleeman of Allendale, who hopes to make alligator farming a family business. “There’s definitely a market for the meat and the hide.”

Sleeman’s wife is from Louisiana and was aware of the success of farms there. The Sleemans approached Hutto a year or so ago for his help getting legislative approval for growing gators for sale.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which would have to take steps to ensure the captive meat and hide sales don’t affect the wild gator population, has given its tentative approval of the legislation. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration handles food production inspections, has yet to weigh in.

The Senate Fish, Game and Forestry subcommittee moved the bill, S.714, along to full committee on Thursday after a short discussion focused mainly on regulatory concerns.

Sleeman, who works for a construction prep company, has no experience in farming or food production, but he sees a niche to be filled. “We’re not looking to go into anything large scale,” he said. “We just want to get our feet wet and maybe try to expand from there.”

Making a profit in alligator farming isn’t a sure bet. In Florida, where alligator farming has been allowed since 1977, there are 65 licensed farms, but only 10 were active in 2012, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Those 10 farms produced 15,318 hides and 233,466 pounds of meat in 2012. Based on meat and hide prices, the average alligator brought in $583 that year. But that was a good year for hide and meat prices. When prices were low in 2010, the average value per gator was only $141. Hide prices are much more volatile than meat prices, ranging from $75 a foot to $15 a foot in the past decade in Florida.

The key for alligator farmers, as with any meat production business, is to get the animals to grow quickly. To do that, many farms heat the holding pools during cold months to prevent the alligators’ natural winter dormancy period. Also, gators in the wild can go a long time between meals – sometimes for months during winter dormancy – but farm-raised gators have a ready supply of protein and eat more often throughout the year.

Those tweaks in the life cycle can translate into gator hatchlings reaching six to seven feet in length in three years. That could take six to eight years in the wild. A gator needs to eat about 400 pounds of protein to make it to six feet long, according to Florida officials.

Any new alligator farm must put up a substantial amount of money and wait at least three years for the first big payoff. Sleeman hopes to work out deals with local poultry producers to get unused chicken or turkey parts to feed to farm-raised alligators, thus saving money for both operations.

DNR put together the regulatory framework for a poultry waste-to-alligator farm program about a decade ago. But no potential farmers in the state signed up for the pilot program, said Jay Butfiloski, who heads the agency’s alligator management efforts.

Most farms aren’t small operations. In Florida, the 10 active farms in 2012 killed an average of 1,500 gators each. In Louisiana, 55 licensed farms harvested nearly 280,000 gators in 2013, an average of more than 5,000 per farm, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. One farm in Camilla, Ga., boasts of having 100,000 alligators.

Alligators, once widely hunted for their hide and meat, were among the original species protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. With protection, the resilient and resourceful creatures quickly rebounded in the wild, and they were taken off the endangered list in 1987.

South Carolina banned hunting of alligators until 2008, when a limited number of tags were given out through a lottery for taking gators in the wild. Legal hunters now kill about 480 alligators per year. The meat from hunter-killed gators cannot legally be sold, but the hides can.

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