Back to Home Page

Local Links
Sun Valley Guide
Hemingway in Sun Valley
Real Estate

For the week of March 7 through 13, 2001

Gator Gumbo

Hot springs an ideal environment for exotic species

Express Staff Writer

When Leo Ray lists the animals he raises on his aquaculture farm in Buhl, it is hard not to focus on alligators despite the many other unusual aspects of his business.

Yes, he raises alligators for their meat and skin, but he also raises two kinds of catfish, tilapia, sturgeon and trout.

Leo Ray, owner of Fish Processors, Inc., in Buhl, examines some of the hundreds of tanned skins he hopes Idaho leather craftsmen will turn into finished products like boots, belts and coats.

While sturgeon, trout and catfish occur naturally in Idaho, tilapia don’t belong here anymore than alligator does, because the bass-like fish from Africa need warmth to survive, too. But Ray conceived the potential for a catfish farm when he visited Hagerman in 1971 and saw the constantly available supply of hot water from hot springs.

All he had to do was add a little cold water, and he could create the 85-degree environment that catfish grow best in.

Shortly after his visit, he bought a place in Buhl that had hot springs and started Fish Breeders of Idaho Inc., raising two types of catfish—channel and blue catfish.

Then he added tilapia, an African and Southeast Asian fish that also needs a constant warm environment.

At first he grew tilapia to sell to farms in California and Arizona to control the growth of vegetation in irrigation canals.

Butchers do their job on a recently harvested alligator. Leo Ray raises the animals for their meat and skins. The fat from alligators is used in women’s cosmetics.

When buyers discovered the grass carp did a more efficient job than the tilapia, he turned to raising the fish for meat.

In 1978, he started raising trout, and in 1988, sturgeon. Alligator came to the farm in 1994.

Tilapia and alligator are exotic species, and because they are not native to Idaho, Ray is closely regulated by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Idaho Department of Agriculture.

Asked if either animal had ever escaped, Ray granted that tilapia have, but no alligators.

The tilapia, he said, die almost immediately because they cannot survive in 60-degree water or lower. He said alligators would suffer the same fate.

Ray is used to the notoriety of raising alligators in Idaho. Since seeing is believing this curiosity, he keeps a few `gators outdoors inside a security fence. They stay warm in their naturally hot water, or they sun themselves along the bank of the pool.

The majority of his alligators live in alligator barns—long, rectangular buildings with a peaked roof, more underground than above. One barn, round with a domed roof, looks like a large yurt. Both types of barns are insulated and locked.

Inside, an elevated catwalk over the alligator pool allows feeders and harvesters access to the animals.

The catwalks are railed to keep people from falling in and alligators from climbing out.

Just the same, Ray said he is careful whenever he opens the barn doors. Every now and then an alligator manages to get on the catwalk.

The temperature inside the barns is maintained at 85 degrees to 90 degrees by the hot spring water, and the humidity is 100 percent.

Think of a steam bath, and you’ll have an idea of what it is like inside—except for the smell. After weighing the chance of a loose alligator, that is most likely the thing to be taken into account before entering.

But odors are expected on a farm¾ as is a thrifty and efficient use of resources.

Ray said he started raising alligators primarily as another animal to harvest for profit, but he said alligators had another faculty he found highly valuable.

They eat the leftovers from the fish he harvests. Instead of throwing out the parts of fish people don’t want to eat, Ray feeds them to his alligators.

That is a distinct advantage over most alligator farmers, he said. Most alligator farms in the United States are in the Southeast and Gulf states, where farmers use manufactured feed.

Ray said that by the time an alligator gets to be 4 feet long in the South, it is harvested. To grow it any larger, the farmer is losing money from the cost of feed.

Ray likes to say his alligator feed is free—leftovers from the processing plant and dead fish from the fish farms.

Because of that, he can grow his alligators to 10 feet in length, though his average harvested animal is 6 to 8 feet long. That means not only more meat per animal but also more hide.

Ray said he sells the meat, wholesale, for more than beef. And, he said, he has a hard time keeping up with demand from the West Coast, from San Diego to Vancouver.

Last year he harvested 1,000 alligators—that translates into 30,000 pounds of meat.

One of his buyers is the supermarket chain Winco, which operates more than 34 stores in California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

He didn’t say how much he gets per pound, but the Florida Department of Agriculture reports that alligator meat is sold at $5 to $7 per pound to restaurants.

The "green" or untanned skin sells, on average, for $35 a foot. A tanned skin sells for $40 to $50 a foot.

Once tanned, the skins are surprisingly pliable and soft. Even though alligator pajamas are unlikely, they would be soft enough to sleep in.

Ray said his wife was uninterested in alligator skins for the longest time until one day she asked about a particular shipment.

Ray said after he told her the skins were going to Ralph Lauren to make a $75,000 alligator coat, she became more interested.

As a forward-looking sort, Ray has several projects going on in his head for the future.

One is to find Idaho leather workers to turn his alligator hides into finished products. Until recently, all of his skins were sold outside Idaho. Now he is selling his tanned skins instate.

Another of his plans is to start producing caviar from the sturgeon he raises. He said that until recently, harvesting caviar would have required killing the fish, but now there are methods for harvesting without dispatching the fish. With caviar prices at $100 a pound, Ray is planning to try the caviar business in a couple of years.

Tropical fish might also be in his future.

Already he’s successful growing the tropical tilapia fish. He and other aquaculturists may one day raise most of the tropical fish sold in the United States.


Back to Front Page
Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.