Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
EUNICE – The 2019 crawfish season is underway, but it has begun with a below-average start.
“It’s slow right now. Normally we would be wide open, but we’re at half throttle,” said Doug Guillory of Riceland Crawfish, based in Eunice. “They’re waiting for that sun so they can come out of that growth spurt.”
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant aquaculture specialist, said cold, cloudy weather is the main reason the catch has been off so far.
“A lack of sunshine days during December and January delayed the crawfish molting and growing, and general activity,” he said. “We just need spring-time weather with milder weather. Until the water and the mud on the bottom warms up, it’s going to stay slow.”
When the water temperature reaches 65-70 degrees, the catch should increase, he said.
Shirley said the catch is down throughout the crawfish-producing area. “All parishes have the same problem, so we can conclude the weather is probably affecting everyone. There’s sufficient demand for the amount of crawfish available.”
He said production will probably catch up in late March and April, probably extending into May. High water in the Mississippi River will probably maintain high water that could lead to a good catch in the Atchafalaya Basin, he said.
Dexter Guillory, Doug’s father, recalls a comparable slow start to a season back in 2000 when the industry was rocked by the use of the ICON pesticide. “The whole year did not get any better than this.” But Dexter said he’s not worried. “The season is early.”
Dexter has more than 30 years of experience to rely upon for his prognostication. He began fishing on 50 acres of family property in the late 1970s when he was a butcher at Winn Dixie, then he started Riceland Crawfish in 1984 and opened the plant in the middle of Eunice. In the early 1990s, the company started processing alligator meat in a separate facility.
“We’re pretty much in every state with the crawfish and alligator,” Doug said.
The company is a major player in the live crawfish market, buying from area farmers and selling to restaurants locally and out of state.
Riceland also sends its 15 trucks loaded with frozen crawfish and gator meat to cold storage facilities in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and Massachusetts. Food service companies and restaurants around the U.S. then place their orders and take delivery there. The frozen storage facilities never own the product, but they store it for distribution.
Doug’s sister, Holly, is in charge of selling the company’s frozen products. She started working with her brother and father 4 years ago after working for 15 years for the food company Sysco. Before that, she worked in restaurants, starting as a waitress, so she knows the food business from all levels. “I sell our finished products, or as Dad calls it the value-added products.”
Holly has to perform the balancing act of making sure the distribution warehouses around the U.S. have enough of Riceland’s products to meet orders, yet avoid overstocking. When she is trying to get restaurants to buy alligator and crawfish, she can recommend recipes.
Holly said the company has plans of starting to sell overseas. “We have every intention to expand into the European market.”
The small crawfish catch so far has affected supply, she said. “This is the first time that I ever knew about that we’re short on supply.”
She said her work often requires visiting buyers across the U.S., as well as attending trade shows.
In addition to frozen tail meat, Riceland sells whole-boiled crawfish. Dexter began selling that product in the early 1990s, but China took over the market with a cheaper product, but with inferior quality too. Buyers wanted a U.S. product.
“Seven or eight years ago, we started getting back into it,” Doug said. “It’s really grown in the past 2 or 3 years.”
Now the company has a brand new 30,000-square-foot facility east of Eunice designed for the frozen boiled part of the business.
It’s located beside a new 50,000 square-foot cold storage, Sub-Zero Storage, to store Riceland products, and for other companies to rent freezer space.
Dexter said the reason for the expansion was just simple economics. “We developed a good client base, and we have opportunity for more volume.”
The new whole boiled operation is about to start up, but an automatic packing machine has yet to be delivered. They hope to be operational by late March. “We’re pretty much down to the clean-up steps.”
The new facility has three blast freezers to freeze the boiled crawfish before it is shipped in 3- and 5-pound bags. Consumers can heat up the whole crawfish in boiling water, or in a microwave oven. Of course, they can be thawed and eaten cold too.
Doug said a critical taste testing would probably reveal differences in the frozen boiled and fresh boiled crawfish, but consumers are giving it favorable reviews. “We get phone calls and emails all over from people who appreciate having it.”
Mark Shirley said he tried the whole-boiled product, and he was impressed. “If you close your eyes, you’d swear you’re eating fresh boiled crawfish. It tasted very good.”
Dexter said the seasoning for the frozen boiled crawfish is adjusted for more sensitive palates outside Louisiana. “We don’t go overboard with seasoning. You can always add, but you can’t take away.”
The business has been dedicating mornings to process tail meat at the plant in Eunice, then using afternoons for whole-boiled product, but the expansion will allow a full day for both processes.
Live crawfish prices are too high for Riceland to start its boiling and freezing operation, Dexter said. Once the price drops, the whole-boiled processing will start up.
Dexter said the whole-boiled market is helping farmers by absorbing the product and helping bring some stability to the market.
Demand for alligator meat increased about 5-7 years ago, Doug recalled. “It’s been flat since then.”
The company sells tenderized alligator filets, alligator legs and breaded nuggets.
Last year, Louisiana harvested 415,000 farm-raised alligators, a record number, according to Shirley. Non-wild alligator meat is more consistent in flavor and texture, he said.
The company also sells crawfish traps, and materials for making traps, in addition to bait and sacks.
A full list of the company’s offerings and crawfish recipes can be viewed at its website, www.ricelandcrawfish.com.
Some of the Riceland’s employees have been working for Riceland for more than 20 years, and many of the workers are foreign. When the business is in full operation, it will have 250 people on the payroll.
Dexter said owning one of the largest businesses in Eunice is stressful, but he enjoys the work: “I like the job. You have to make a profit but you have to like working with customers. That’s the fun part.”
Fisheries agent Shirley said many crawfish businesses have failed, but Riceland has succeeded because of Dexter’s vision. “He’s one of the progressive figures in the crawfish and alligator meat industry. He’s a fair, honest broker, and he’s made good decisions along the way.”
Dwight Landreneau, retired LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor, said he recalls from his days as a county agent when Dexter sold live crawfish out of the back of a pickup. “He’s an innovator when it comes to crawfish. He had a vision and he’s not afraid to take chances for improvements.”
“We’ve always been progressive, and that has pushed us in a positive way,” Dexter said.
Landreneau, who does quality control work for the company, said Riceland has succeeded because of the positive relationship the company developed with the buying public, and because of its emphasis on quality. He said Riceland is one of three crawfish distributors in Louisiana that has the Safe Quality Food certification.
Holly said several of the company’s long-time employees have helped with Riceland’s success. “Dad, Doug and I could not do it by ourselves. Our team is very important within the facility. Without them, we couldn’t do it.”
Dexter said he just turned 68, and he realizes his children will be taking over the business. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. There’s nothing more beautiful than family working together.”