Reptile chic: UF wildlife ecologist says Florida alligator farmers cashing in on fashion trend
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While some agricultural producers are facing tough times, Florida alligator farmers are cashing in on reptile chic – the growing worldwide demand for alligator skins on everything from belts and boots to $10,000 designer handbags.
“The market for high-end alligator leather products is very strong right now, and farmers are getting top dollar for their gator skins,” said Perran Ross, a wildlife ecologist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Florida alligator farming has had its ups and downs in recent years, but it’s definitely a good time for those who are already established in the business.”
He said Louisiana is the nation’s leading producer, harvesting about 300,000 alligators every year compared to 60,000 in Florida, but Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged alligator egg production in Louisiana. As a result, luxury-goods manufacturers in the United States and Europe need to secure future supplies of alligator skins, which is helping Florida farmers who can provide high quality products.
He said the value of finished alligator skin products may be anywhere from five to ten times the raw-product value.
Allen Register, owner of Gatorama in Palmdale, Fla., one of 60 licensed alligator farms in the state, said prices for alligator bellies range from $40 to $50 per foot, which is up by almost 50 percent from a few years ago. He said that belly skins are more valuable because they are soft and flat, compared to horn-back skins that have bumpy ridges and are often used in western-wear market.”
Like other Florida alligator farmers, Register harvests alligators when they reach four or five feet in length, which requires about two years of growth. He said Louisiana farmers typically harvest three- or four-foot long alligators after one year to save on the space needed to raise such large numbers.
“In the past, buyers have been a lot more fussy about scars and scratches on hides, but we are seeing less emphasis on those imperfections, probably because of the increased demand from U.S. and foreign luxury-goods manufacturers,” he said. “After some slow times during the past eight or nine years, the market is definitely on the upswing.”
In addition to the strong international demand for alligator hides, the domestic appetite for alligator meat is growing, commanding prices of $4.50 to $4.75 per pound at the wholesale level and $7.50 to $10 per pound at retail, Register said.
Christy Plott Redd, marketing director for American Tanning and Leather Company in Griffin, Ga., buys skins from producers all over the world but prefers American alligator skins because of their high quality.
“Florida is key to our business because we need those grade-one skins to sell to handbag manufacturers and fashion designers,” she said. “As the demand for better quality, faster delivery and larger sizes continues to grow, the farmers in Florida will play a bigger role in the luxury market.”
She said some skins are commercially harvested, while others are taken in cooperation with the state’s nuisance alligator program. “From our experience, the percentage of grade-one skins – or handbag-quality skins – is about 8 percent from those taken from the wild. That number jumps to 90 percent or more when we buy farm-raised skins.”
Redd said there will always be a demand for good quality skins, and farmers who are good can stay in business during difficult times. “We have all seen the hard times in this business, and it’s not pretty,” she said. “It’s sad to see people who’ve been around for years and years suddenly go out of business, but it happens in every industry.”
She said farmers should focus on growing the best alligators they can rather than growing the most alligators they can.
“When demand slacks off, that’s when we start getting more picky,” Redd said. “We can always sell good skins, but we can hardly give the poor ones away. In this industry, we need more research on how to grow the best quality skins.”
Ross, an alligator and crocodile expert in UF’s wildlife ecology and conservation department, said alligator farming has about a $25 million impact on Florida’s economy. He said it is not a “get rich quick scheme” but one that requires large capital investments over a three- or four-year period when little or no income is being generated. To protect this renewable resource in Florida, alligator farms are licensed and regulated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
He said the vast majority of alligator skins are produced from eggs purchased and collected from wild alligators in the state.
“These eggs are hatched and raised in farms to produce a fast growing and better quality product,” he said. “Therefore, there is a direct link between these valuable reptiles and maintaining wetland habitats for them.”
Ross said the commercial harvest of alligators actually helps conserve the species and their habitats because the economic incentives from egg production and legal harvesting encourage landowners to maintain wetlands. In addition, license fees from the program help support research, monitoring and wildlife management programs that conserve alligators.
“In other words, alligators pay their own way for their conservation,” he said. “Florida has a model program that is emulated all over the world for managing alligators and their habitat for sustainable economic gain.”
Another advantage of alligator farming is that farmers can produce high-value products year-round for national and international markets, he said. “Alligator farms do not require large tracts of land or water, and farm operations do not have adverse effects on the environment. Land that may have been a nonproductive or marginal wetland can be used for alligator farming,” he said.
Alligator farming is also an efficient way to utilize meat and meat products that are not suitable for human consumption. Aged or freezer-burned meat, unused fish from commercial trawlers and offal from poultry processing plants are good sources of food for farms, Ross said.
He said American crocodiles, whose hides are similar to alligator skins, are making a comeback in South Florida, but these endangered reptiles cannot be harvested or raised commercially in the United States.