When he was 12 years old, Ed Froehlich collected snakes. Lots of snakes.
“Oh, I’d say about a thousand,” he says. “I kept them in pens I built outside my house.”
Froehlich’s fascination with reptiles was not a mere childhood phase he’d someday outgrow. Today, he owns Froehlich’s Gator Farms and harvests between 2,000 and 3,000 alligators per year, selling gator meat, skins and skulls.
“I had an older cousin who would take me snake hunting when I was a little boy,” he says. “Going through the wetlands like that, learning to catch snakes and turtles, it was only natural to move on to alligators.”
But it took him years of saving up money at his ranch in Palm Beach before he could sell the property and start a full-fledged gator farm outside Orlando. Like any Florida farmer who ventures into this unusual line of work, he found there’s a lot more to farming gators than there is in raising mere cattle. From special feeding and breeding requirements to breaking up fights in the pen, alligators need special attention.
Unlike cows, alligators eat meat. Raising one to reach a mature 6-foot length takes animal protein — 400 pounds of it in a lifetime. Farmers mix spoiled or unwanted meat with specialized alligator feed, and then lay it out on a slab of dry land in the holding pens for the gators to eat.
Getting them to dine on anything at all can be surprisingly tricky.
“They won’t even eat when it’s 60 degrees out,” Froehlich says. “They go into a kind of semi-hibernation.”
That’s why farmers keep their cold-blooded livestock swimming in 90-degree water. The heat boosts their metabolism — and their hunger.
It takes 16 months to raise a 5-foot alligator in a heated chamber. In the wild, it takes more than 5 years. That’s four times the growth just from taking a lifelong hot bath.
“You want them to eat a lot, but you don’t want them to eat each other,” says Allen Register of Gatorama, a farm and wildlife park in Palmdale. “The toughest part is getting a blemish-free alligator. For that, you have to keep them from fighting.”
Every alligator farmer strives to produce the perfect hide, because the value of gator skin — used to make luxury shoes, belts and other clothing and accessories — drops sharply with marks.
The first scratch alone costs a farmer 25 percent of the sale on a product that can cost more than $25 per foot. Sellers can’t take damaged skin to less demanding customers, says Register. There is only one major buyer of unprocessed skins in the United States out of six in the entire world.
Knifelike teeth can tear profit-burning holes in the hides. Cramped conditions can stir up emotions in the pit, and aggressive leg chomping is hard to avoid, especially at frenzied feeding times.
“You always get some bullies in the pen,” says Froehlich. “Sometimes it’s just a question of attitude. You take the bully out and suddenly all the fighting will stop.”
Male alligators cause nearly all the trouble. Froehlich wishes he could exclusively raise females, but because he buys eggs from the state he has no control over the sex of his animals.
Eggs hatch as females if kept at 85 degrees and below; higher temperatures yield almost only males. The state collects eggs in the wild, where nobody can keep track of how hot they’ve been.
Gatorama, on the other hand, produces its own eggs, which few farms have the space for.
“Alligators need to feel comfortable if they’re going to breed in a farming situation,” Register says. “We dug out a little canal system in the swamp to give them some privacy. It does pretty well.”
Combined, Florida’s alligator farms produce 300,000 pounds of meat each year, according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida. Sold as a delicacy year-round at $5 to $7 per pound, the chewy, versatile meat is lucrative merchandise.
“It’s still a relatively new business,” Register says. “It’s only been 20 years that alligator farming is around. Before that, there were just trappers for nuisance animals.”
Alligators were taken off the endangered species list in 1977, legalizing their commercial use and opening up the world of crocodilian farming.
Register’s Gatorama now harvests between 800 and 1,000 gators annually, making it a “medium-sized” producer. Thanks to its theme park attractions, Gatorama sells most of its meat directly to visitors through a gift shop. Customers can buy frozen ribs, frozen tail or indulge in Gatorama’s “Swamp Sampler” that includes pickles and seasoning.
Froehlich and Register agree there’s nothing quite like fried alligator ribs, but the possibilities for cooking don’t stop there. With the wealth of recipes available, Forrest Gump may as well have started the Bubba Gump Alligator Company.
“You can get fried alligator, broiled alligator, baked alligator, boiled alligator, shish kebabed alligator — the list goes on and on,” says Froehlich. “There’s all kinds of different ways to eat it.”