Market for alligator meat way up in state

Tail and jaw meat most desirable; price for pound about $8.75 now in Florida

BY SUSAN JACOBSON
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

SANFORD  — When out-of-town friends visited Brian Hayes last week, he took them out for alligator meat at the aptly named Gator’s Riverside Grille.

These alligators will be a meal someday. For now, they live at Jimmy and Linda Boston’s alligator farm in Seminole County(PHOTOS BY SUSAN JACOBSON/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)
These alligators will be a meal someday. For now, they live at Jimmy and Linda Boston’s alligator farm in Seminole County
(PHOTOS BY SUSAN JACOBSON/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)

“I just like it because it’s something different,” said Hayes, 36, of Osteen. “You can eat chicken every day of the week, but you can’t get gator meat everywhere.”

Many people apparently feel the same way. The market for gator meat has exploded in the past couple of years, pushing the price in Florida to its highest level ever.

The upswing is a relief for alligator farmers and trappers whose businesses were devastated by the recession.

“As a trapper, I went through some very, very challenging times in the past few years, and it’s just starting to come back,” said Jerry Flynn, 52, who traps in Volusia and Seminole counties and supplements his income with construction work. “Meat definitely is on the rise, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.”

Jump in price
Allen Register, chairman of the Florida Alligator Marketing and Education committee and owner of the Gatorama alligator and crocodile attraction in Palmdale, agreed.

“We sell more meat now than we ever sold,” Register said. “We can’t produce enough on our farm to take care of our customers.”

150410_business01bThe wholesale price of alligator meat hovered between $4 and $5.50 a pound from 1980 until 2011, when it rose to $5.75, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, although some farmers and trappers say it dipped as low as $3 during the recession.

The price took off in 2012, jumping to $7.50, and rose to $8.25 in 2013, the last year for which the state has records. It’s about $8.75 now, Register said.

Tourist attractions
The price of the hides is more volatile and took a beating during the recession, when it plummeted from $43.75 a linear foot in 2008 to $15 in 2009 and 2010, according to the commission. For two or three years, it was impossible to sell hides because people weren’t buying high-end leather goods, trappers and farmers said.

“You have to have the value of the meat and the skins to make any money off it,” said Terry Parlier, a former nuisance-alligator trapper who owns a gator-processing plant near Clermont.

To survive the ups and downs of the market, some alligator farmers turned their businesses into tourist attractions.

Others, such as Jimmy and Linda Boston of Seminole County, rely on crab, catfish and some eel sales.

Jimmy Boston, 71, rises before dawn to catch the catfish and eel himself and buys the crabs from his son, who traps them.

“If we hadn’t diversified, we’d be out of business a long time ago,” said Linda Boston, 66, who sells gator meat to walk-up customers at the farm near Sanford and to several Central Florida restaurants.

150410_business01cAlthough the alligator-meat market is rebounding, the couple aren’t experiencing a windfall. That’s because gator-feed prices have doubled, and freight and other charges have risen, Jimmy Boston said.

Used in tacos too
The Bostons sell their meat, which they process themselves and then vacuum-pack and freeze, for less than many retail outlets: $8 a pound. At Bar Harbor Seafood in south Orange County, by contrast, the price has held steady at $12.99 for the past few years, retail manager Scott Charron said.

Gatorama charges $12 a pound for ribs and about $18 a pound for tail meat, but some online stores get as much as $25 for tenderloin, which comes from the tail.

The tail and jaw meat is considered the most desirable, although soup and jerky can be made from the darker, tougher leg meat.

The Florida Department of Agriculture says gator meat can be used in sausage, patties and taco filling, but fried gator bites are most popular and often are served with sauce.

Farmed meat is more consistent in taste and texture, Register said.

TV shows helped
Flynn and the Bostons credit TV reality shows such as “Swamp People,” “Gator Boys” and “Growing Up Gator,” which last fall featured the alligator-farming Brooks family of Christmas, with raising the profile of alligator meat and increasing its value.

Danny Lam, 28, who was visiting from Toronto last week, said he wanted to try gator because it’s a novelty. Like many other people, he said he liked it but found the texture chewy and tougher than other meats. Some diners say it tastes similar to chicken.

“I consider it exotic,” Lam said after sharing a plate of battered gator-tail bites with friends at Gator’s Dockside in Baldwin Park in Orlando. “Up where we are, you rarely see gators.”

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