The Crawfish Farmer
Hank Williams sang about having big fun on the bayou eating jambalaya, crawfish pie and file’ gumbo. These days you don’t have to travel as far south as the bayous to get fresh crawfish for your jambalaya and crawfish pie. As one northeast Alabama farmer has discovered, fresh crawfish can be as close as your farm pond. Already busy with four broiler houses, a 90-head beef cattle farm, and 60 acres of timber, Cleburne County farmer Cliff Langley of Ranburne decided that raising crawfish would make his family’s farm truly diversified. “Cattle, poultry and timber prices have been in a slump, and I needed to find another commodity to increase our income,” Langley said. “Crawfish seemed like a good choice because the market in this area was wide open. There wasn’t another crawfish farmer in a wide radius.”To help him get started, Langley enlisted the help of County Extension System Agent Chip East, who accompanied him on a trip to Mississippi State University to learn more about raising crawfish in earthen ponds.They discovered that the traditional method of crawfish farming consists of planting a forage crop, such as rice or millet, on the pond floor. After the forage crop is established, the ponds are gradually flooded with water to a depth of 18 to 24 inches.Langley, however, opted for Mississippi State’s less labor-intensive method of raising crawfish. In his operation, Langley does not plant a forage crop but instead fills the pond to a level of 4 feet. He then simply feeds the crawfish a 32-percent, sinking catfish feed.Langley said he constructed a one-acre pond to raise crawfish in the fall of 2001.”I built the pond myself with a bulldozer and farm tractor I already had on property below our house,” said Langley.He then piped water from a spring behind one of the chicken houses to fill the pond and installed a shut-off valve that allows him to raise the water level with spring water during a drought or when evaporation takes place.Because the pond is fed only by spring water, no predator fish can enter the pond. However, crawfish farmers do have to contend with other predators such as raccoons, blue herons and kingfishers.Langley purchased five harvesting traps for his one-acre pond with plans of eventually having 20 to 25, the recommended amount. Parallel, spaced fencing made of plastic netting was then installed. This is the same orange netting used around construction sites. The net serves three purposes, Langley said. First, it provides a place for the young crawfish to climb and escape larger crawfish that might eat them. Second, algae forms on the net providing extra crawfish forage, and finally, the net will help keep the crawfish evenly distributed within the pond. Once he had the pond built, Langley drove to Lake Pontchartrain, La., to buy the Red Swamp variety of crawfish to start his new operation. During December 2001 and January 2002, Langley stocked the pond with 550 pounds of crawfish, which is more than the recommended 75 to 100 pounds per acre. Fortunately, he had established a market for his crawfish before picking up his first batch for stocking. He simply used the pond for a holding area until he could deliver his first shipments. To harvest the crawfish, Langley uses pyramid traps with three small openings at the base where the crawfish enter. The crustaceans can crawl up the neck of the trap, but the slick, PVC collar prevents them from escaping. Langley then turns the trap upside down and dumps the crawfish into wet burlap bags for delivery.”If you keep the bags moist, it prevents the crawfish’s gills from drying out and keeps them alive,” said Langley. Langley has recently purchased an old, refrigerated milk truck that allows fresh delivery on longer routes.Langley said one advantage to crawfish farming is that he only has to stock the pond one time, if the water quality remains at reasonable levels. The crawfish are fed once each day at rates that vary month to month.During January and February, no feeding is necessary because of winter burrowing. In May and June, however, the feeding rate increases to 30-32 pounds per day because of the higher activity during mating season. Langley said the best time of day to feed is during the late afternoon in anticipation of increased foraging activity that occurs after sunset. “Since I’m not married and don’t have any children, my evenings are free for daily feeding times after I tend to the chickens and cattle,” he said. According to Greg Whitis, extension aquaculturist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System in Greensboro, there are between 100 and 200 acres of water devoted to crawfish farming in Alabama. Whitis added that Langley is one of only about a dozen crawfish farmers in the state–so there is plenty of opportunity within the niche market.Whitis currently is involved in experimental research with crawfish ponds and production to determine the most cost-effective and efficient ways to raise crawfish. “If our verification project shows the results I believe it will, commercialization of crawfish farming in Alabama will certainly take off. The results I’ve seen so far show that we can yield at least 2,000 pounds of crawfish per year with a typical, one-acre pond,” said Whitis. Langley’s selling point is that surrounding restaurants can get locally fresh crawfish from him rather than having it shipped in from far away. Langley currently is the only crawfish farmer on record in northeast Alabama. This allows him to serve a wide customer base around the Alabama/Georgia border. “You have to build your market from scratch with phone calls, restaurant visits and word-of-mouth recommendations,” said Langley. “There was a seafood market southeast of Atlanta that called wanting 60 to 70 pounds of crawfish each week. I had to turn down the offer because I was already selling all that I was currently trapping.”Most of Langley’s market consists of local restaurants or private individuals hosting crawfish boils. “As long as I have a couple weeks notice, I can generally supply local people with the crawfish they need,” said Langley. Langley sells his crawfish by the pound, and his prices are consistent with the Louisiana market. The difference, he said, is that his customers get same-day freshness without having to travel to the bayous for their crawfish pie.For more information about Cliff Langley’s crawfish operation, call (256) 568-2827.John Howle is a member of the Cleburne County Farmers Federation Board of Directors and teaches English at Harralson County High School in Georgia.