Hard times on the bayou for Louisiana alligator industry


POSTED: Monday, November 30, 2009

RACELAND, La.— After five years, Tommy Fletcher and his alligator farming business are facing irreconcilable differences.

“;It's like a marriage,”; he said. “;It was a bumpy road, and then all of a sudden it was over.”;

The alligator industry makes for an odd mix of hardy men on the bayou who smoke Camels and drive crumbling pickup trucks, and Paris and New York fashion setters who consider it reasonable to spend $12,000 on an alligator-strap watch.

This peculiar relationship worked well enough for decades, but it has soured as of late. Last year Louisiana farmers, who produce most of the world's alligator skins, collected more than 500,000 eggs from the wild. This year, for the first time, most farmers did not pick up any.

The economy is the lead culprit. Since the fall of 2008, even wealthy customers have begun balking at the price of alligator skin products, which can range from the expensive to the wildly expensive. Bumper crops in previous years, people in the industry say, left an oversupply just as the luxury market began to falter.

But some farmers insist that the newfound frugality of the Gucci set cannot by itself explain the absolute washout of the alligator business. More than a few are beginning to blame the practices of executives in the European fashion business.

“;How can this industry fall out so quickly?”; Stephen Bonnecarre asked while tossing live alligators into bins at his father-in-law's farm outside Houma. “;It happened too fast.”;

Since the 1980s, the State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has worked with farmers to maintain the state's alligator population, estimated at one million to 2 million reptiles.

Alligator farming is hard, messy, costly work, and the lifestyle could not be further from that of the eventual Bergdorf Goodman shopper browsing for a pair of alligator skin loafers. Farmers, often in father-son teams, mark alligator nesting sites from helicopters, then go into the swamps by boat to gather the eggs, fending off mama gators with a pole. (By law, 12 percent of the grown alligators are returned to the wild.)

The landowners are paid for the eggs, and it is expensive to raise an alligator once hatched. The big ones—those that could end up as lavender handbags—tend to bite one another, making the skins worthless. So roughly nine of 10 alligators reach their demise when they are only about four feet long.

Stolid men wade into shallow tanks and pull the alligators out by hand. Biting happens. After the gators are killed with a stab to the brain, they are skinned and sorted: heads and claws for the French Quarter souvenir shops, meat for the Cajun restaurants, guts for turtles, dogs or anything else whose tastes run that way.

For decades, the skins would be sold to 10 or 15 independent, often family-owned tanneries around the world that specialized in reptile skin, or so-called exotics. The prices were generally good, even generous. Some farmers, the ones that ran big operations, made millions of dollars.

The tanneries in turn would sell to the high-end fashion houses like Cartier, Hermes and Gucci, and from there the alligator would end up wrapped around someone's wrist.

But things changed. In the mid 1990s, Hermes began buying tanneries and, as of a couple of years ago, became the largest player in the exotic tannery business.

Hermes bought aggressively from the farmers, and is still buying, though recently at prices far lower than in the past and lower even than the price of raising an alligator. All of this could be attributed to a very bad market. Luxury watch sales, on which the farmers are hugely dependent, are off by as much as 25 percent. But farmers look at the situation and say something does not add up.

While the tanneries are offering farmers little for their raw product, citing the recession, fashion houses are complaining about the astronomical prices for tanned hides. Many labels are giving up and moving away from alligator altogether, and well-known luxury brands like Manolo Blahnik say it is increasingly difficult to make a profit on such an expensive product.

“;Every time I go to Neiman Marcus and say every year the price is going up, they fight me tooth and nail,”; said George D. Malkemus III, the president of Manolo Blahnik. “;They say, 'I'm not going to spend $4,000 for an alligator shoe.”;'

If alligator is still popular but is simply unaffordable, asked Zachary Casey, who until three years ago owned one of the largest farms in the state, why are thousands of the reptiles sitting unwanted in Louisiana? And why have prices for the raw product dropped so low? He says Hermes is hoarding the skins, forcing other fashion houses to pay dearly and leaving the farmers with few other options.

Caroline Schwartz-Mailhe, a spokeswoman for Hermes, said in an e-mail message that the company bought only about a third of the skins produced in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, far from a monopoly. Schwartz-Mailhe added that the continued aggressive buying from farmers was a way “;to support them in these difficult times and to respond to Hermes' increasing development in alligator skins.”;

Recent signs suggest that the luxury market is rebounding, at least somewhat. But some of the smaller farms simply will not make it.

Fletcher has been losing $15,000 a month on his little farm off the highway here near Raceland, about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans. He found a python and a loggerhead turtle and is considering opening a roadside zoo for tourists. But the plan of making it big in alligators, which once seemed like a good idea, has left him heavily in debt.

“;I guess it's like being married to Miss America,”; Fletcher said. “;You get all the benefits of the hugs and kisses, but she's mighty high maintenance.”;