With restaurants told to shutter dine-in service in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, crawfish farmers in the state are reporting a drop in orders.
“It’s crippling right now,” Gerard Frey, a crawfish producer in Acadia Parish tells the LSU AgCenter. “We’ve never faced anything like it. We can only sell 10 or 15 percent of what we catch.”
Coupled with a lack of seasonal workers from Mexico, Frey says he’s unable to fully staff his peeling operation and therefore the processing plant isn’t running at full capacity.
Many in the industry are saying this couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“We’re approaching the peak of the season,” says Mark Shirley, an LSU AgCenter crawfish specialist and Louisiana Sea Grant agent. “You’ll be lucky if all those restaurants will do 10 to 20 percent of what they were doing.”
The “Cajun field of influence,” or how far farmers can deliver crawfish overnight, is also quickly shrinking. What normally accounts for about 50% to 60% of the market is going to have a major hit on Louisiana farmers, Shirley says.
The drop in sales comes just as crawfish were starting to pick up with the warmer weather. About two-thirds of the harvesting is done from March through May. Now, they’re selling just a fraction of what’s coming out of the water.
“This was going to be an epic season,” says Laney King, co-founder of The Crawfish App. ”Easter is like Superbowl Sunday for these vendors.”
Prices in the Baton Rouge area dropped about 25 cents earlier this week, but with the drive-thru and pickup-only mandate, it has been changing daily, she says.
While the St. Patrick’s Day weekend still saw a lot of sales, things really dropped off as the restrictions rolled in and the number of COVID-19 cases rose, King says.
With restaurants in Houston and Dallas limited to takeout only, that’s another big market hit for Louisiana crawfish. While some are still buying bags to boil at home, it’s not nearly at the same level that would be typical of the restaurant industry.
“There’s just not that many people buying,” says Christian Richard, a Vermilion Parish farmer.
Mike Hundley, a farmer in Acadia Parish, told the AgCenter that sales to restaurants have “come to a halt.”
The processing plants are expected to put a quota on how much they’ll accept in order to manage costs. Richard says if that happens, he won’t be able to keep all his workers.
King, the app founder, says farmers are starting to sell directly to customers through the app, bypassing the brokers who aren’t buying as much of the live sacks.
Baton Rouge area vendors are trying to think of creative ways to get people back in the door, but King warns, if consumers don’t support the $300 million-a -year industry now, it may not be able to recover and come back strong next season.
AgCenter food scientists are encouraging crawfish lovers to boil them at home for freezing. We have instructions for the best methods here.