The Louisiana crawfish market is strictly supply and demand. And, right now, demand is through the roof.
“We operate in a true free market,” says Stephen Minvielle, who raises the iconic crustacean on Bayou Land Farms outside New Iberia, La. “The crawfish industry, all in all, is the number one-growing agricultural/aquaculture industry in the state.”
While all other farming entities are losing participants, crawfish farmer numbers are growing. “In Louisiana, there are probably 1,500 crawfish farmers on about 175,000 acres.”
There were predictions that the early crawfish season would be bountiful. Those predictions were wrong and the dearth of crawfish has only increased demand.
“So far, the early season has turned out to be below average. Yields are down at least 35 percent.”
And the calls keep coming.
“Over the last five or six years, New Orleans is the number one market for crawfish. Texas and Mississippi have become the largest out-of-state crawfish consumers. And obviously a lot of crawfish is consumed in south Louisiana.”
Consumers want their crawfish fix. Since the beginning of the year, Minvielle has received over 100 calls from nine states. “I wish I didn't have to turn so many away.”
In Louisiana, rice and crawfish are tightly linked. Most of the time that bond is a good thing. But occasionally, the two have problems.
In 2000, a product called Icon was introduced to deal with the rice water weevils. While it took care of the water weevil very well, Icon hammered crawfish.
“We had a drought on, too, but Icon was the main reason the crawfish industry was decimated,” says Don Alleman, a crawfish producer in Morse, La. “The state had massive losses of crawfish and crab. Icon just whacked them. That situation lasted for three to four years. We saw effects from Icon for that long.”
When Icon was first introduced, “we were told it wouldn't kill crawfish. Then, when it did, they said (the problem) would be gone in 45 days, or so. It lasted for three years! There were also problems with run-off.”
Icon has since been taken off the market, but “we had to go through a lawsuit and deal with the after-effects of that stuff in our fields. We got back on our feet, though.”
Alleman works Quality Crawfish with his partner, Tony Godeaux. Starting the operation in 1999 on 1,000 acres, the pair now labors over 4,400 acres.
While such large operations aren't abnormal, “there are a bunch of 40- to 150-acre farms,” says Alleman. “Those make up the majority of the industry and are usually one-man concerns that deliver to local markets. A lot of crawfish are sold to local markets — there's a reason Louisiana is known for crawfish.”
There are also those like Quality Crawfish that have developed their own marketing set-up.
And then, on the heels of the Icon situation, Rita and Katrina crashed the party. In Alleman's area of southern Louisiana, around Acadia and Jefferson Davis parishes, “we were very fortunate because Katrina came in east of us and Rita came in west of us. The saltwater didn't reach us and we were incredibly fortunate.”
Others weren't so lucky. “Crawfish country was devastated by Rita — at least 40 percent of the crop was wiped out,” says Minvielle.
Residuals from the hurricanes included massive amounts of salt dropped onto the land — especially in the prairie sections of southwest Louisiana.
“We've never faced such an occurrence before. How are you supposed to deal with the salt? Fortunately, a small percentage of the affected acres are showing small signs of rebound. But it will be a number of years before they're back to their former production levels.”
The salt was “incredibly bad. A month after Rita hit, you'd walk in some areas of southern Louisiana and swear you were on a salt flat. The ground was so white, it looked like snow.”
Saltwater is still badly affecting southern parishes, says Alleman. “This year, the crawfish seem not to have survived the seeding procedure done in May. They went into the soil, obviously had problems with the salt and didn't emerge again. That's definitely happening south of us.”
There are other issues crawfish farmers must deal with. “Sometimes, when the winds come in and cross the rice fields, it knocks all the stubble into the crawfish ponds. When all that material begins decaying, it forms an oxygen problem and lowers yields by killing small crawfish. The larger crawfish can survive but the smaller can't.”
That leads to gaps in crawfish generations and affects overall yields throughout the industry.
“This year, we've been very fortunate. Nothing like that has happened. Even though yields are down a little, the cause is temperature-related.”
As with other agriculture commodities, the cost of producing crawfish is going up. That's especially true for producers working ponds as opposed to basin production.
“Fuel prices alone are cutting deeply into any profits from the pond side,” says Alleman. “In rice fields and ponds, we have to move water, often using irrigation wells. In the basin operations, farmers depend on water from the north — snowmelt and rainfall. That's another reason rice pond prices are up.”
Minvielle says the cost of farming crawfish has gone up about 20 to 30 percent in the last two fiscal years. “The price at the marketplace must be passed on to the consumer ultimately in order for the farmer to stay in business. The days of $20-per-sack crawfish are about gone. That would put farmers in bankruptcy most assuredly.”
And Asian crawfish still remain a bother to U.S. producers. “The Asian imports are mostly a concern for the tail meat market,” says Alleman. “The Chinese are the major exporter of crawfish to the United States.”
One positive to come out of the Asian crawfish arrival is “the U.S. consumer has come to know quality. The Chinese product, after about three months frozen, becomes rubbery and isn't as good as local, fresh product.
“Obviously, we have the advantage of crawfish being fresh. We've managed the Chinese situation because our customers are now educated and want Louisiana, or local, tail meat. It is undeniable that the fresher the crawfish, the better the taste.”
The rice industry is depending more and more on chemicals, fertilizers, different varieties, says Alleman.
“We have to do the best we can to coexist with the rice farmers — and, in most cases, the rice farmer and crawfish farmer are the same person.”
But as profits in the crawfish industry rise, Alleman says, it is inevitable that many rice farmers will shift into more crawfish. When that happens, “they have to stay in tune with the rice chemicals to ensure their crawfish populations aren't hurt.”
And as the rice industry changes, the crawfish industry has to change with it. “That's my biggest concern — especially after the Icon problems. The good thing is that now everybody, including the chemical companies, is more attuned to the needs of the crawfish farmers. They don't want to get crossways with us.”
As a whole, “a crawfish is the most recognized thing — with the exceptions of Mardi gras, jazz and Bourbon Street — in the state of Louisiana,” says Minvielle, who besides farming, heads the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board. “I assure you the crawfish industry will continue to grow. It's already a huge economic fountain for the state.”
What about crawfish producers and the next farm bill? “We're working to see if the federal government, through the farm bill, will recognize the benefits we provide to the ecology of our biological systems. On that, we've had much interest from the Louisiana congressional delegation as well as those from other states. That's probably because it could impact the catfish industries and turtle and other aquaculture industries. (Such a thing) is long overdue.”
Whatever happens in Congress, Minvielle will still push mudbugs. “If you've never tried crawfish before, take the leap! You'll be back for seconds.”