Weather continues to negatively influence Louisiana's crawfish industry. First it was hurricane water surges last summer that flooded channels with saltwater — thus impeding normal brood stock schedules — and closed most New Orleans-based eateries that serve the popular Cajun crustacean.
Now, drought conditions are poised to push more producers out of the business altogether, even as the region vexes the start of this year's official hurricane season.
Richard Fontenot, a crawfish farmer outside Ville Platte, La., said over the past eight months there has been only one only significant rain and that one was associated with Hurricane Rita.
“The lack of rainfall has made a dramatic impact,” said Fontenot, estimating that his farm's crawfish production is off 30 percent to 40 percent per acre from its normal production schedule.
“The water from the hurricane was not good quality — there wasn't much freshwater — so crawfish weren't very responsive to it,” he said.
Figures from the LSU AgCenter indicate that thousands of acres have been subtracted from the 130,000 acres originally estimated for Louisiana's crawfish production in 2005-06 before hurricanes Rita and Katrina struck. Current farming conditions indicate that short supply of crawfish will continue over the next season.
Stephen Minville, crawfish farmer, past president of the SCFA, and chairman of the Louisiana Crawfish Research Promotion Board, said for the first time in 40 years, the state's farmers — who saw their overall production sliced by about 40 percent due to the storms — are going to receive governmental financial assistance. The USDA has earmarked $4.7 million for relief, which will be dispersed first to farmers hit the hardest.
“I'd be surprised if the state produced 10 million pounds,” Minville said.
If the state was hit again this summer by a major hurricane, and one that struck Louisiana's midpoint, it would “break the backs of 30 percent of the farmers permanently,” Minville predicted.
David Savoy, farmer and president of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association, said a short seed supply, beginning in 2005, will likely discourage farmers from starting anew.
“I don't know how many people can start a season new on $2.35 diesel,” he said.
Savoy said since the days following the last hurricane, the market price has fluctuated. “This season can rebound,” he said, “but consumers have to realize that the days of cheap crawfish are gone.”
He added that most restaurants have increased their charge to an average of $4 for crawfish, a price not spurred by an increase of charges from producers, but rather an avenue for the restaurants to recoup losses.
“That creates a negative demand, but our association is trying to promote to consumers is that right now they can buy crawfish directly from the producer for a lot less,” he said.
While Fontenot's outlook for the crop and its market, coupled with rising fuel costs, is “pessimistic,” a significant rain could go a long way towards the industry's recovery.
Another crawfish farmer, Jeffrey Sylvester, also outside Ville Platte, said it's going to take more than cooperative weather for farmers to survive: They must see new marketplace infrastructures emerge.
“It was a good year for me, but yields were down,” he said. Sylvester and his two brothers, Chet and Ted, who manage the farm their father started in the mid-1950s, were among the few fortunate farmers whose crops survived and are available for a less-competitive market.
Because so many New Orleans restaurants closed permanently or temporarily and needed tourism came to a halt, the market diminished. But because crawfish production also was compromised, the market price was sustainable for farmers who managed to survive, he said.
“New Orleans and especially Biloxi with the casinos, those were our markets, period. Those losses have been devastating. But also hurting have been all the smaller restaurants across the state that have closed for good,” he said.
Sylvester said many farmers he knows can't afford to restock the crop. And for those farmers who remain in production, the economic forecast remains based on uncertain information and uncertain future estimates, including insurance reimbursements and rebuilding timeframes for New Orleans.
“How many people will get back into the crop? Who knows. It depends on a lot of variables,” he said.
Fontenot said one possible redemptive scenario might unfold. “If anything positive could come out of this, it could be that former natives — those who aren't returning — introduce new neighbors to crawfish in new markets.”