John Price of Covington, Louisiana, is the classic example of the new pioneer who’s left corporate America and returned to the land to enjoy his freedom and his passion, and to conduct a business that provides an income for him and his family. While he’s now the president and the owner of Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery, Price was once highly successful in the oil and gas industry buying leases from landowners in the Louisiana Delta for exploration and drilling. However, though successful, he regretted not having enough time with his family.
“I decided to think about changing careers to find a business that allowed me to be at home more,” Price said. For the past 24 years, Price’s commute from his home to his business has been a 50-foot walk. He’s become an alligator rancher. His family helps him raise and sell alligators and educate the public about how free enterprise has brought the American alligator back from its placement on the endangered species list.
Back To The Land
In the 1980s, the oil and gas business took a major downturn. “To get more work, I started representing landowners to negotiate leases with gas and oil companies,” Price recalled. He also negotiated duck hunting, trapping and pipeline right-of-way leases to aid landowners in getting fair prices for the use of their properties.
One landowner called Price and said, “I had a call about a lease to harvest alligator eggs on my property. What do you think is a fair price?” Price told him he’d never heard of such an offer. He had no knowledge about the alligator ranching program set up by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF).
Price noted, “I’d been hunting wild alligators since 1981. I knew the value of a wild alligator, which typically was a larger animal than a ranch-raised alligator.” Price, who has a business degree from Loyola University, recognized that the alligator ranching program was a fledgling business that he might be able to get into on the ground floor. He also realized that several years would be required to grow this business.
According to Price, “My job for this landowner was to try and determine if $5 per alligator egg was a fair price for the landowner to charge to allow this alligator rancher to come onto his property and collect alligator eggs.”
After some research, Price determined that the going rate for alligator eggs was $5 each. “I called the landowner and told him that the man was offering him a fair deal. However, I also told the landowner I’d like to lease his property to collect alligator eggs. The landowner said I’d always dealt fairly with him, and he’d rather lease the land to me.”
When Price acquired the lease, he said he knew “absolutely nothing about raising alligators.”
Price set up a dialogue with the LDWF about how to raise alligators, to learn what type of license or permit he needed, whether alligators were raised indoors or outdoors, how to set up an alligator ranch to raise and sell alligators, what to feed alligators, and where and how to sell alligators for their hides, meat, heads and claws.
Price soon realized that every part of the alligator had value except its growl. One of his biggest concerns was how to retrieve the alligator eggs without being bitten by the mama alligators that stayed close to and protected the nests.
“I had hunted wild alligators long enough to know that live alligators were dangerous,” said Price.
Getting The Ranch Going
When Price announced to his family that he was leaving the oil and gas business to become an alligator rancher, their first reaction was “Are you nuts?” But Price’s family had faith and trust in him. Price collected about 1,000 eggs for an initial investment of about $5,000, hatched 868 eggs in his backyard in Metairie, Louisiana, and then moved his family and baby gators to his current location in Covington. He located a spring on the land and drilled a 2,300-foot-deep well to give his ranch 83- to 84-degree water that flowed at about 80 gallons per minute. This water temperature is ideal for raising alligators all year long.
“We quickly built our first alligator barn, since the LDWF requires alligator ranchers to raise their alligators indoors and keep the alligator barns at a minimum of 85 degrees,” Price said. During the winter months, Price heats his barns with a propane-fired water heater. The water pipes run beneath the slabs of the barns.
After raising his first crop of alligators, Price talked to other landowners he knew from working in the oil and gas business and used the skills he’d learned there to negotiate the harvesting of alligator eggs off their lands.
“Once we had a written lease agreement with a landowner to harvest alligator eggs, we’d take that lease to the LDWF,” Price said. “The state would give us a permit to harvest a certain number of alligator eggs. If we found more eggs than we were authorized to take, we told the LDWF. The next year the LDWF would give us a permit to harvest the number of eggs we could have gathered the previous year.”
The LDWF wants ranchers to take all the eggs they can from the wild, because the department knows that the return of alligators to the wild is much greater than the number of alligators that will survive if hatched in the wild. The LDWF keeps very good records of the number of eggs harvested from the properties that alligator ranchers have leased, the number of alligators released into the wild, and the growth of alligator nests each year.
Back From The Brink
“Today we’ll produce as few as 500 alligators for the market up to as many as 1,500 each year,” Price said. “About 50 percent of the revenue coming into the ranch is from the sale of alligators. The other 50 percent comes from tours and field trips at our ranch where people can learn more about alligators. We enjoy teaching visitors about how the American alligator has been brought back from the endangered species list through the alligator ranch program created by the LDWF, the life history of the animals and many of the alligator’s amazing characteristics.”
During the early years of his alligator ranching business, John Price and his Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery collected as many as 3,000 eggs per season to as few as 1,500. According to Price, “We started changing directions about 15 years ago, at about the same time three of my children were going to college. When you’re raising and selling alligators, your income is controlled by the market price for alligators. So we’ve created an attraction that’s educational and entertaining, and opened a gift shop that sells alligator items.”
Price researched how to develop an attraction, how to market that attraction and how to set up a gift shop. He also knew he had to have entertaining tour guides to make the educational and attraction side of the business fun to learn. Insta-Gator Ranch & Hatchery also rents out large alligators—those more than 4 feet long—for use in movies, television shows and music videos.
After attending a tour of the Insta-Gator Ranch, I learned more about the American alligator than I ever expected. I had so much fun learning about, seeing and holding an alligator that I want to go back and see it and do it again and again.
The ranch conducts tours for groups of school children and college students as well as individuals, so they can learn how the alligator fits into the swamp environment along with the unique facts and characteristics associated with live alligators. The tourists are invited to “See them, Hold them, Hatch them.”
Go to insta-gatorranch.com or call 888-448-1560 to learn more about alligators and the ranch.
This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.