For Louisiana seafood promoters, it was a moment made in heaven: Singer and American Idol contender Joshua Ledet stood on the stage of Fox television’s popular show as host Ryan Seacrest asked him what he missed most about his Westlake, La., home. Standing before a TV audience of some 15 million viewers, Ledet answered: “Boiled crawfish.”
The resulting shrieks of delight were probably still echoing from South Louisiana to Hollywood as the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board sprang into action. With help from Randol’s Restaurant in Lafayette, the marketing agency prepared a care package for Ledet, and when the singer stepped up to the microphone for the next phase of the talent competition, a stagehand wheeled a 60-pound tub of boiled crawfish across the stage.
“You can’t pay for that kind of advertising,” New Iberia crawfish farmer and promoter Stephen Minvielle says, marveling over the memory of Ledet teaching Seacrest how to eat crawfish on prime time television.
The promotional opportunity was a peak along the continuum of highs and lows that characterize the crawfish industry. When marketers are not concocting ways to get more people interested in eating the crustaceans, they most likely are fretting over how to raise enough of the critters to meet demand. Keeping supply and demand in balance while growing the industry overall is no small task. Just ask a farmer.
“We’re so far behind now that catching up in this season is not an option,” Minvielle, who is executive director of the Louisiana Crawfish Farmers Association, says.
April, May and June generally mark high times in the crawfish business, but the success of any season depends heavily on the weather. Minvielle says abnormally warm temperatures and a shortage of rain will keep this year’s harvest from setting any records.
When surface temperatures are too warm, the crawfish follow their burrowing instincts and dig deep into the ground. “There’s a saying that heavy rains and a clap of thunder will call them back up,” Minvielle says with a laugh.
The saying is not far off the mark. Although the critters are commonly known as “mudbugs,” they did not earn the nickname by wallowing their lives away in muddy ditches. Rather, much of the life cycle of a crawfish is spent digging several feet into the ground and, months later, making the journey back to the surface.
During the summer months, as surface temperatures rise and the ground dries out, crawfish dig down in search of moisture. Although they typically burrow and remain 2 or 3 feet below ground, farmers tell of finding the critters as deep as 6 to 8 feet beneath the surface.
In autumn, as rainfall increases and the wetlands begin to fill up again, the crawfish make their way back to the surface and deposit their eggs and offspring in open water. The baby crawdads feed and grow through the winter and begin to reach harvest size by early spring.
Ray McClain, a research professor at LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station in Crowley, says that in the earliest days of crawfish-harvesting, weather was almost the sole determinant of how many mudbugs would be available to eat.
Back then, and still today, the swampy region known as the Atchafalaya Basin provided favorable conditions for the crustaceans to reproduce and grow without assistance from human beings. “The crawfish were typically only available to locals and through a very short season,” McClain says.
American Indians introduced European settlers to crawfish, he says. And people who made their home in or near wetlands developed favorite ways of cooking and seasoning the creatures.
This “wild” catch was the sole means of satisfying public appetite for crawfish until the mid-1960s. But as the critters began showing up at backyard crawfish boils and became associated with the increasingly popular Cajun cuisine, agricultural specialists developed an interest in their habits and habitat.
McClain says that LSU started working with farmers in the ‘60s to develop a crawfish “aquaculture,” which ultimately became the foundation for crawfish-farming as it exists today. The compatibility of rice and crawfish-farming was clear from the start, with muddy rice fields creating ideal growing ponds and excellent fodder for the crustaceans.
Although three dozen different species of crawfish exist in Louisiana – and several hundred can be found worldwide – McClain says only two types are grown in Louisiana for food: the red swamp crawfish and its cousin, the white river crawfish. Of the two, the red swamp variety is the most common.
Thanks to dozens of farms that dot South Louisiana and a few other regions, Louisiana produced more than 127 million pounds of crawfish in 2008, according to a 2010 survey by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Close to 90 percent of that production came from farms.
A few other states, including Mississippi and Texas, contribute to the country’s annual crawfish production, “but no other states produce it like Louisiana does,” McClain says.
GOOD CROP, BUT NO BUMPER
The work day starts early during crawfish-harvesting season on David Savoy’s farm near Church Point. A few dozen workers fan out in small boats before daylight to start picking up and replacing every crawfish trap on the farm’s 1,700 acres. Baited with either cut-up fish, such as carp, or grain-based pellets, the traps lure the crawfish in and contain them. As workers hand-push their pirogues through the water, they grab each filled trap, pull it into the boat and plop a freshly baited empty trap in its place.
Like many farmers, Savoy practices a rice-crawfish method of production. But while some farmers rotate the “crops” – alternating rice and crawfish yearly in the fields and harvesting both for sale – Savoy never harvests his rice, instead leaving it in the fields as forage for the crawfish.
He plants the rice fields in early fall, and then – if rain has not been adequate – he floods the rice fields with pumped-in water beginning in late October. “We get the fields flooded, then there’s a waiting period while the females come out of the ground with eggs or babies on their tail, and they release them in the water,” he says.
Savoy, who says he’s been in the business “one way or another for 35 years,” several years ago expanded his operation to include crawfish-processing, which he says allowed him to maximize production during high-demand times.
He says once the crawfish are growing in open water, it takes a few months for them to reach optimal harvesting size. Around New Year’s Day, consumers begin getting a yen for the bugs. But something about the end of professional football season seems to give their appetites a kick-start.
“Super Bowl is our first big-demand time,” Savoy says. “The playoff games and Super Bowl are a really big deal.” Crawfish generally are pricey at that time because the supply is not yet plentiful, he says.
As the weather warms toward early spring, most farms gradually build into full production mode. Somewhere around Easter is when Savoy’s processing operation goes into full swing, with workers peeling the crawfish and packaging the tail meat for shipping. He generally stops processing in early June.
“We can still catch at that time, but because of the price and having to pump water to keep the fields wet, it’s just not profitable after that,” he says.
Soon thereafter, as the groundwater begins to heat up, the crawfish sense it’s time to return to the depths and begin the reproductive cycle. “That’s when they start burrowing again,” he says.
In years of serious drought, such as 2011, many crawfish die underground because they are unable to dig deep enough to find water. Savoy expects the 2012 season will be better.
“It doesn’t look like a bumper crop, but it’s probably 75 to 80 percent better than last year,” he says.
NOT FOR PART-TIMERS
While consumers commonly refer to the spring months as crawfish “season,” farmers are quick to emphasize that producing crawfish is a year-round, full-time job.
Natchitoches farmer David McGraw, who has raised crawfish for 25 years, says his business started as something of a hobby and then gradually grew into a 1,000-acre operation that produces more than 1 million pounds of crawfish in a good year.
When he’s not producing and packaging from his own farm, McGraw has workers “wild-catching” in the Atchafalaya Basin or he buys product from other farmers to ship to the growing out-of-state market for mudbugs.
McGraw says the Internet has been a big factor in the growth of crawfish sales, and like many others who package the critters, his Louisiana Crawfish Co. sells crawfish and an array of other products via a Web site.
Ironically, the business also has benefited from big storms.
The 2005 hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, sent thousands of South Louisiana residents scattering, at least temporarily, to other locales, and many who settled in other states continued to get an annual hankering for crawfish. Their clamoring to have mudbugs shipped to their new homes was a boon to Louisiana crawfish retailers.
“We started getting business from transplants who were taking the local culture elsewhere,” McGraw says, adding that most of the product he ships now goes to out-of-state buyers.
The crawfish farmers association’s Minvielle confirms the trend. “There’s nothing like a bunch of Cajuns moving out of South Louisiana to convince other people of how good our crawfish are,” he says. Today, Memphis, Tenn.; Jackson, Miss.; Little Rock, Ark.; and a large chunk of Texas are among the strongest markets for Louisiana mudbugs, he says.
The continuing popularity of Louisiana cuisine in other states probably helps ensure a long-term future for the state’s crawfish-farmers. Minvielle concedes that mudbugs are unlikely to replace shrimp and other favorite fruits de mer on dining tables anytime soon, but he says they will hold their own as a specialty item on many menus.
“Crawfish have a flavor all their own,” he says. “It’s not that they are superior to other seafoods; they’re just unique.”