WHEN Ernest Brown opens the shed door, a gamy smell assaults the unexpecting nose. An aroma, from 600 small alligators housed in a 90-degree building with 89 percent humidity, grips the nostrils.
The odor doesn't bother Mr. Brown. He's in charge of hatchlings at Gatorland, a commercial alligator farm that combines tourist attractions with its farming operations. What does concern alligator farmers, though, is that a recession-induced plunge in the price of alligator skins has taken a bite out of the business.
Just when people are realizing that alligators are no longer an endangered species, commercial alligator farming has reached a stage of relative maturity.
Larry Richard, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry says that the industry is at a crossroads.
Vertical integration is the direction the alligator business has to go after the recession, says G. O. Parrott, president of the Florida Alligator Farmers Association. He points to Gatorland as a role model. It hatches its own eggs, grows the alligators to a marketable size, contracts the sale of skins to French or Italian tanners for processing into luxury items, and then sells the finished product on the premises along with alligator meat.
"It used to take five to six years to grow a 6-foot alligator," says Donna Turner, director of marketing for Gatorland. "Now it takes three years." Gatorland collaborates with researchers at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The life span for an alligator is 40 to 60 years. One female lays about 35 eggs annually that take 65 days to hatch.
Prices for the hides of farm-bred gators declined from $35 per foot a few years ago to around $18 a foot today. (At the market's peak in the mid-'80s gators trapped in the wild fetched $60 a foot.) About 70 percent of the market for finished products is in Europe and Japan. Hides make up 85 percent of the business, with meat equaling 15 percent.
Of the annual worldwide market of 300,000 skins, 150,000 originate in the United States, mainly in Louisiana. Louisiana has 120 commercial alligator farms, while Texas and Florida together have fewer than 40 farms. But only 10 percent of the 150,000 skins are processed in the US - at three small tanneries in Louisiana. Most skins are tanned and made into products such as shoes, wallets, and luxury golf bags in France and Italy, where family companies hand down the elaborate tanning methods.
"We would like to get one of the French or Italian tanners to set up shop here and pass on their skills, so that we ... could get in on the high end of the skin trade," Richard says.
Put on the endangered species list in 1967, alligators went off it in 1988. In 1977, some 10,000 alligator eggs were harvested in the wild in Louisiana. In 1990, 300,000 eggs were harvested from 2 million acres of marshes and swamps and then sold to alligator farmers. During that period the alligator population in Louisiana increased from fewer than 200,000 to 750,000. Some environmentalists endorse alligator farming as a way of managing the overall alligator population while building an economic incenti ve for maintaining ecologically sensitive wetlands.
Alligator meat is popular in Florida, says Ms. Turner. Gatorland sells it blackened or fried. The taste is best described using the old standby - "like chicken."