Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
MERMENTAU – This is Christian Guinn’s first year of farming on his own, and the 22-year-old is getting a hard-earned lesson in agricultural economics of supply and demand.
While his crawfish catch is respectable, the price isn’t.
“It’s been hard this year,” Christian said while driving to check on crawfish and rice fields.
He said crawfish production has been good on his 150 acres -- after a slow start because of cold weather -- but prices have dropped considerably. “During Lent alone, it’s dropped three times.”
Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter crawfish specialist, said it’s a buyer’s market because of the falling prices. Demand has not kept pace with production, he said, and that’s a big reason why prices have been in a freefall. “The impression I get from talking with buyers is that the restaurants and drive-through places are not selling the volume they usually sell.”
To help farmers, Shirley said consumers should, “Eat crawfish as much as you can.”
Crawfish acreage seems to be higher this year, but Shirley said it’s difficult to estimate the increase. But it’s safe to say that the acreage bump has helped suppress prices, he said. Last year, the LSU AgCenter estimated crawfish acreage at 250,000 and the Farm Services Administration reported 284,000 acres, he said.
Retail prices for boiled and live crawfish are down by about 25 percent from the pre-Easter price of 2022, according to The Crawfish App, which tracks the commodity throughout South Louisiana.
Christian said buyers are limiting the number of sacks they will buy from him on some days, So far, his crawfish have been large enough that he hasn’t had to sell any as peelers, which bring even less money.
“That’s what’s keeping me going. The size has stayed very nice.”
Christian said his larger crawfish could be attributed to a low stocking rate. He said a stocking rate of 2-3 sacks per acre seems to result in larger crawfish, he said. The lower population means more food is available throughout the season, he explained. “Nine times out of 10, you pass a field with lots of vegetation, you’ll have larger crawfish.”
With cool weather, cut pogeys are still the preferred bait, but artificial bait will be effective as the days get warmer. He uses about nine traps per acre.
“Bait prices have gone up drastically too. Everything has gone up. Except the price,” Christian said.
Apple snails are becoming more of a problem in Christian’s fields that are near the Mermentau River.
They get into his traps, and that means workers have to cull the mollusks from the crawfish and that takes valuable time. Screens are being used on his irrigation pipes to control the snails’ movement but the pest is fairly mobile. He doesn’t see an immediate remedy for the snails. “I think it is going to be a much bigger problem.”
Mark Shirley said there’s not much that can be done now to control this invasive species. He said LSU AgCenter entomologist Blake Wilson is working on a project using copper sulfate. The material is effective on the snails while it doesn’t appear to affect crawfish, he said, but the cost of $35-40 an acre could be too expensive for most farmers.
And while the snails are eaten in Southeast Asia, you might think again about trying this version of escargot since apple snails carry a neurotoxin and a brain-eating parasite.
Shirley said the White Spot Virus hasn’t been a problem this year, so far. “I’m still on the lookout for it." He said a test kit is now available to enable growers to test stocker crawfish for White Spot. The kit, which costs less than $20, can be used in the field. “In 10 or 15 minutes, you get the results.”
Many of Christian’s neighbors have drained crawfish fields early, because of low prices, to plant rice.
Christian is hoping that the higher rice prices, currently around $25 a barrel for September rice, will persuade farmers to opt for increasing second-crop acreage and that would reduce crawfish acreage next year. “Or if they do crawfish, it will be later.”
He has a combination of push boats and motorized boats. But he said an expected wage increase for foreign workers will probably mean he will move away from push boats to reduce labor costs.
But even with the wage increase, he plans to hire three more workers next year, in addition to the two farmhands he now has, to help with his plan to increase crawfish acreage.
His motorized boats are equipped with basket wheels to minimize rutting that is expensive to fix while preparing fields for planting rice. Cleated wheels are notorious for digging deep into the soil and creating trenches that require extensive field work to get the ground ready for planting rice.
“A basket wheel will dig to the clay, and it stops,” he said.
Mark Shirley agrees that basket wheels have the advantage of not breaking through the clay pan, reducing the amount of field repair work. Push boats are even better, he said, but the jury is still out on whether it’s cheaper in the long run to pay a worker to walk fields with a push boat that doesn’t damage a field instead of using a more efficient powered boat that ruts the soil.
Shirley said some producers opt for airboats that don’t disrupt the soil profile, but they are more expensive and more difficult to control with high winds that often hit Louisiana in the spring during the peak of crawfish season.
Christian graduated from Notre Dame High in Crowley, then studied accounting at LSU-E. He was two semesters from graduating when COVID hit. But instead of returning to the classroom, he stayed in the field. “I decided I was going to start farming full-time.”
Christian worked for area farmers, including Will and Dustin Davidson of Roanoke, while he was going to college. “During high school, I was always helping somebody. I was always the type who learned more hands-on than being in the classroom.””
His dad, James Guinn, ran a concrete business but he also kept cattle. “We always had cows when I was growing up.” Christian, the youngest boy of six boys and four girls in the Guinn family, is the only Guinn to become a farmer.
Christian said his dad wasn’t surprised when the career decision was made. “He always knew I wanted to farm, so it wasn’t a shocker. I always wanted to farm. I was always intrigued by it.”
James said he didn’t try to talk his son out of farming, and he’s taken that approach with all of his 10 children. “Whatever direction they choose, I support them 100%.”
He said he’s tried to pass along a strong work ethic to his children and he emphasizes paying bills on time. “That’s the two main things.”
James said it might be a good thing that this year’s crawfish season has been challenging. “You learn not to have high expectations.”
Christian also works the Guinn Cattle Co. herd that produces replacement heifers from 120 registered Brahma cows. They have eight bulls, four Angus and four Hereford. “We’ll turn the bulls loose next week,” he said. The cattle are worked on horseback.
For his first rice crop, he has planted 420 acres. About 75 percent of it was drill-seeded with RiceTec hybrid 7321 and the rest was water-seeded with Jupiter medium-grain. The first field was planted March 5 in the Klondike area and the last was flown on March 29 near Mermentau.
He also plants rice for other farmers with his 20-foot box drill.
Electric powered pumps have been installed on the 170 acres at the Klondike farm. It was laser-leveled last year, so he has to be cautious about spraying weeds on the freshly cut ground.
Bird pressure has been heavy on his planted rice fields, especially in the water-planted rice. He uses pop guns and a rifle to frighten persistent Mexican squealers and teal.
Christian has several mentors. For regular financial advice, his dad is a big help. For cattle, Shane and Wayne Zaunbrecher of Elton are his advisors, while the Davidsons help him with rice.
When he‘s not farming, Christian leaves the wet Louisiana environment to hunt in the desert of west Texas. “I like deer hunting more than duck hunting.”