COLUMBIA - Don't plan on ordering up that South Carolina-sourced alligator sausage just yet.
The prospect of South Carolina's first alligator farms, a practice generally associated with Florida or Louisiana, has raised interest as the S.C. Senate weighs a bill, S. 714, that would allow for and regulate the prospective new industry. But now an environmental group has raised some concerns about the legislation, and it hopes that senators put the brakes on it until some details can be ironed out.
Ben Gregg, executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, said the organization isn't opposed to alligator farming or the bill. It asked in a recent letter to see that farms abide by stronger environmental regulations, among other concerns.
It's unclear whether a lot of people would take on alligator farming, but that's no reason not to push for strong regulations, Gregg said.
"You can kind of say 'Oh well, not many people are going to do this.' But who knows. You need to lay down some strong standards starting out," he said.
Gregg said he wants to see strong regulations for how alligator waste is dealt with, and the water systems where the gators live. He said the state should also put in place stiff penalties for mixing native alligators with those being farmed, a practice that can cause genetic and health problems for the gators.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said many of the group's concerns will be dealt with once state agencies write regulations governing alligator farms. He plans to propose an amendment to the bill this week that would spell out some of the group's specific concerns and ensure that the Department of Health and Environmental Control addresses them in potential regulations.
The biggest issue for alligator farms is not concerns over regulations, but rather whether they can succeed in South Carolina, Hutto said. The state is considered farther north than many of the places that have had success in the industry, and the business can be a difficult one, he said.
"If the bill passes, I don't think you're going to see an alligator farm spring up in a month or two," Hutto said.
Joel and Nettie Sleeman of Allendale are driving the bill and hope to start their own alligator farm. Nettie Sleeman said she grew up in Louisiana, and her reasons for wanting a farm are simple: "I love gator meat," she said, fried or barbecued.
Although she and her husband Joel, who works in construction, have never run an alligator farm, they believe they can make one work.
"It's something we're going to have to do slow, it's not something we're going to just jump into," Sleeman said.
Even if the bill passes, the couple may find it difficult to be successful.
Those in Louisiana have struggled with a fickle economy for luxury goods and high prices for upkeep, according to an article in Modern Farmer, a Web site and print publication.
Still, it's clear there is money to be made. In 2012, Louisiana farmers sold 292,657 alligator skins at a total value of $64.5 million. While alligator meat makes for a lean alternative to chicken or pork, alligator skins drive the majority of industry profits. Meat value came to only about $6 million, Modern Farmer reported.
Sleeman said that while she knows there are hurdles, she believes the business can work.
"All we can do is try," Sleeman said.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 843-708-5837 or on Twitter @Jeremy_Borden
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