By Ashley Barker
Published May 21, 2014
Nettie Sleeman loves gator meat. Fried or barbecued, white meat or dark meat, in a gumbo or cooked Cajun style over rice, she enjoys it all.
She grew up eating the reptile in Louisiana and has been pushing for South Carolina to legalize alligator farming for a couple of years.
Sleeman and her husband, Joel, own 25 acres of farmland in Allendale sandwiched between two peach orchards, putting their closest neighbor nearly a half mile away. It’s the location where they plan to raise alligators.
Joel and Nettie Sleeman are building ponds on their 25-acre property in Allendale to house alligators. The ponds will be surrounded by cinder-block walls on three sides and a gate at the entrance. (Photo/Ashley Barker)
The Sleemans contacted Sen. Bradley Hutto, D-Orangeburg, when they realized that it was illegal to operate an alligator farm in the Palmetto State. Hutto asked officials with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to investigate laws related to commercial alligator farms in other Southern states.
“They basically said there really is no environmental or wildlife reason not to allow it in South Carolina,” Hutto said. So he introduced a bill more than two years ago to allow farmers to raise alligators for the purpose of selling their meat and hides.
After months of hearings, the Captive Alligator Propagation Act eventually was approved and sent to Gov. Nikki Haley, who signed it into law last month.
Hutto said that, regardless of the farm’s size, running an alligator business is not easy.
“Whether it’s successful or not, whether the bank will loan them money on this operation, whether they can produce enough to sell to make ends meet, that’s an economic decision that somebody who wants to be an entrepreneur will have to decide,” Hutto said. “From a policymaking point of view, there seemed to be no reason not to allow someone to operate an alligator farm in South Carolina.”
The Sleeman farm will initially start off much smaller than many of the commercial alligator facilities farther south.
“We’re not looking to get into the mass-production alligator meat trade right away. Maybe we’ll get there in five or 10 years. We just want to farm alligators and make a decent living,” Joel Sleeman said. “We’re just looking to start a small, mom and pop alligator farm.”
Gov. Nikki Haley signed the Captive Alligator Propagation Act last month. The law allows alligator farming in South Carolina.
Building a farm
“We’re going to be able to house up to 50 (alligators) to start with. So we’ll buy anywhere between 20 and 50, depending on how much money they cost,” Joel Sleeman said.
The Sleemans, and any other entrepreneurs who get into the business, will have to purchase their alligator eggs or hatchlings from outside the state. Depending on the demand and location, hatchlings can cost between $25 and $150 apiece.
“We haven’t decided where yet. But we’ll probably buy hatchlings from Florida because those gators are closer to the gators here,” Nettie Sleeman said.
They’ll transport the hatchlings in a tank to their new home, a heated indoor facility on the Sleemans’ property. That’s where the alligators will stay until they reach two to three feet in length.
Then the alligators will be transferred to one of several outdoor ponds surrounded by cinder-block walls on three sides and a gate at the entrance. The ponds will be heated as well and will include grass for the alligators to use for bedding and nesting.
Hutto said even a small alligator farm can be beneficial to other farms in the area because of what the alligators eat.
“If the lights go out in a chicken house and the temperature gets too cold and all of a sudden 500 birds die due to cold in the chicken house, that chicken farmer has to dispose of those chicken carcasses,” Hutto said. “If there was an alligator farm nearby, the farmer could come purchase the dead chickens and feed them to the alligators so they don’t have to bury them or go through the process of disposing them.”
The Sleemans expect to get most of their alligator food from area deer processors who have excess scraps.
“They eat just about any kind of meat you give them,” Nettie Sleeman said. “A couple of the processors who have a problem disposing of their waste said that when we get up and ready that they will be more than happy to call us when they have waste. We’d put all of that kind of stuff in the freezer, and that gives the gators some of its natural food.”
Once the alligators are ready to be processed, Joel Sleeman plans to isolate the reptiles and shoot each one on site. A food-grade air hose will then be inserted into the animal to loosen the hide, which will be cut off and sold. The meat will be sold to local grocery stores and seafood restaurants.
“Most of the gator meat you get in restaurants here is from Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana,” Nettie Sleeman said. “It would give South Carolina a place to get local gator meat.”
Hutto said alligator farms would help augment the state’s eat local and buy local campaigns.
“This is going to be one more product that we can promote,” he said. “It’s a unique meat.”
The Sleemans are also developing a breeding pond so that they can maintain a constant supply of hatchlings to continue the process. But the alligator farm won’t make any money until at least
three years after they buy their first hatchlings.
“We also raise hogs and chickens, and we’re putting in a catfish pond. So we’ll be able to be mostly self-sufficient,” Nettie Sleeman said. “We should be OK.”
Legalizing is just the first step
Farmers looking to join the alligator business must still wait on state regulations to be approved before they can begin operations.
Jay Butfiloski, furbearer and alligator program coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources, said a rough draft of the new regulations is being circulated through the department, and the state legislature will have final approval.
DNR will set restrictions for how tall fences must be, what size alligators must be kept in a controlled indoor environment and the amount of square feet each animal requires.
“Right now, we think tanks and ponds will have to have a five-foot fence at minimum,” Butfiloski said. He added that two people, so far, have shown interest in starting alligator farms in addition to the Sleemans.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control will regulate the amount of wastewater each alligator farm can produce, and the Department of Agriculture will set rules for farmers who are looking to process alligator meat. Each would have to become a licensed seafood processor and pass inspections that include strict sanitation rules.
Even if the regulations are approved this year, gator connoisseurs shouldn’t expect to see local alligator meat for sale anytime soon.
“There will probably not be a farm permitted in 2014 because everything won’t be in place yet. There may be one permitted next year,” Hutto said. “For you to see a product in the store that says ‘homegrown South Carolina alligator,’ you’re probably at the very earliest looking at 2018.”
Reach staff writer Ashley Barker at 843-849-3144 or @AshleyNBarker on Twitter.