MIAMI — Alligators may sometimes bite the hand that feeds them, but more and more Florida farmers are willing to take that risk.
"They've got a mean temperament," Gatorland Zoo owner Frank Godwin says. "It's a dangerous business. One of my employees lost part of his thumb last year. He was lucky it wasn't his hand."
Nonetheless, some say raising gators sure beats cattle ranching, prices being what they are.
In the last few years, the state has issued licenses to more than two dozen strictly regulated alligator farms, and many more applications are pending, Maj. Kyle Hill of the state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission says.
Average start-up costs are about $50,000, but growers say they expect profits of up to $300,000 per 1,000 slaughtered alligators.
"It's going to be a major business shortly," says Clyde Hunt, whose 20-year-old Hunt's Alligator Breeding Ranch near Bushnell, about 50 miles northeast of Tampa, is one of the state's original farms. "The demand is the highest it's ever been."
Flying 'P' Ranch owner G.O. Parrott says the comparative prices of beef and alligator is what lured him into the business.
"If you break even raising cows, you're doing good," says Parrott, who has a cattle ranch in addition to his new venture with 2,624 alligators, also near Bushnell.
He hasn't yet recovered his initial investment, but says, "We're making a profit, between 25% and 30% over all costs."
Alligator meat (only the tail portion is eaten) sells on the wholesale market for up to $6 per pound, with retail prices at $9 a pound. Hides go for about $25 per linear foot. Prices for finished alligator-hide products are impressive: up to $350 for a wallet, $2,000 for shoes or an attache case and $1,000 for a purse.
An alligator skull will fetch $300 near Gainesville, home of the University of Florida Gators sports teams.
Popular Restaurant Item
People like the meat, which tastes like a cross between chicken and pork, says Jack Herman, the manager of a trendy North Florida restaurant, The Yearling, at Cross Creek. Patrons there snap up a $12.45 entree of 16 lightly breaded, deep-fried gator tail tidbits. The restaurant serves about 150 pounds a week, Herman says.
The main problem with Florida's fledgling alligator farm industry is that it's too small, says James Marsee, an international marketing specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Marsee last fall represented the New Orleans-based Southern U.S. Trade Assn. at the 200-acre food fair in Paris. A popular Louisiana display included an alligator on ice and samples of cooked meat.
"It was delicious. If we had more meat, we'd have a market for it in Europe," Marsee says. "People over there don't have hang-ups we have here about gator or rattlesnake."
Godwin's central Florida zoo, billed as the world's alligator capital, opened in 1948 near Kissimmee as a tourist attraction.
He added commercial farming six years ago and last year slaughtered his first "harvest" from his stock of 5,000 rough-skinned reptiles. He declined to disclose how much he earned from the 1,000 butchered alligators, saying only that "we have achieved our goal."
Godwin also notes that alligator farming is fraught with problems.
Six days a week, his workers shovel out fish meal and chicken parts that are quickly snapped up by powerful jaws. Gators eat about 150 to 200 pounds of food a day, but they are not finicky diners. They will eat just about anything.
Incubation equipment is costly, as are breeder alligators, farmers say. Swampland must be bought and fenced.
Godwin's operation ranges from breeding, incubating eggs (which look like oversized chicken eggs) and raising 10-inch hatchlings to selling raw meat to restaurants, meat canned on the premises, deep-fried "gator bites" and finished leather goods.
The challenges of raising alligators for profit include the high cost, disease, high female infertility and embryonic death rates as well as "learning to be real careful real quick," Godwin says.
For example, he says, last year a virus killed 300 of his baby alligators.
Experts think farmed alligators breed poorly because of captivity-related stress, says Game Commission biologist Allan Woodward, an alligator researcher in Gainesville. To solve that problem, the state hopes to launch a ranching program.
Raise Captured Young
Instead of hatching eggs, farmers would capture wild baby alligators and raise them on farms, Woodward says.
"It can be real important to alligators because it's important to the farmer that alligators aren't decimated," he says. "He has a vested interest."
Alligator farming is strictly controlled. Each gator killed is tagged, and the meat is packed under the supervision of game officers. Farms can harvest only after being in business more than three years. They also must show a successful breeding program.