Farming’s just a croc for these Aussies
Like most livestock farmers, Peter and Angela Freeman are passionate about the four-legged beasts in their charge. They care about animal welfare, and market forces drive them to be innovative marketers and adopt new technologies. So what sets them apart?
Owners of Hartley’s, the Freemans are crocodile farmers in the northern part of the Australian state of Queensland, and their “livestock” are destined to become luxury handbags, belts, wallets and shoes at Europe’s biggest fashion houses.
These saltwater amphibians have the least armour of all the crocodilians, making them the ideal species for this type of farming. European buyers are most interested in the large square section of skin on the croc’s belly – and as the Freemans attest, it’s not easy to raise a perfect, blemish-free croc hide that will pass the grade with those discerning buyers.
A premium skin commands top dollar – $24-25 US per centimetre of belly area – and even one blemish, which can be anything from a pin prick to a scar from a fight with another crocodile, will downgrade it from first to second class. That’s a reduction that comes with a 25 per cent drop in value for the farmer.
Two blemishes drop the price by 50 per cent and anything more than that makes the skin rubbish, says Peter Freeman.
“You can’t be profitable if you’re not producing at least 80 per cent first grade skins,” he explains, adding that buyers will closely examine each skin on a light table to make sure it’s absolutely perfect.
Everything about raising and handling these crocodiles is done manually, making crocodile farming an expensive undertaking. So to make sure they’re hitting that 80 per cent first class target, the Freemans have developed a unique individual housing system for the crocs they’re finishing for the hide market.
Adult saltwater crocodiles are very aggressive and love to fight when they’re housed in groups, so each crocodile is moved from a group pen into an individual enclosure when it’s about 1.4 metres long – usually about two to two and a half years old – where it will stay until it has reached market size of 1.8 metres or about three to four years of age.
“This is a special pen we’ve designed for animal welfare that we believe isn’t being used anywhere else in the world,” says Angela Freeman. “It is certified as an enclosure by the government and it is to achieve what we believe is the most ethical way to house crocs before processing.”
The crocodiles start their lives as hatchlings in the farm’s breeding areas – the herd at Hartley’s is closed, but other crocodile farmers will buy eggs collected from the wild for their operations.
“Most eggs and nests die in the wild, so this is a sustainable use of wildlife,” believes farm manager Nick Stevens. “In the Northern Territory (of Australia), about 40,000 eggs a year are collected from wild crocs and although we don’t do this yet in Queensland, it is a great source of cash input for aboriginal communities at $20-30 AUD per egg.”
One Australian dollar is approximately equal to one Canadian dollar at current exchange rates.
The hatchlings are kept at approximately 32C and 98 per cent humidity, which let them grow rapidly, before being moved to an outdoor grow-out pen.
They’re fed lean kangaroo meat – overpopulation of the iconic Australian mammal means special permits are issued for periodic culls – with younger crocodiles also receiving chicken heads and fish brains. The goal is to keep their diet lean so they won’t add fat to their skins.
Hartley’s is one of about 20 crocodile farms in Australia, and although the croc business is now profitable, 85 per cent of the enterprise’s income actually comes from agri-tourism: an on-farm restaurant, a petting zoo featuring Australian animals, and tours of the property’s rehabilitated wetland that includes being able to watch crocodile feeding.
For farm manager Nick Stevens, though, the heart and soul of the farm is the crocodiles.
“I’ve been working with crocs since 1998 and I just fell in love with them even though sometimes I wish I’d never seen the bloody things,” he says, holding up his left hand to show off several bandaged fingers. “If you’re not careful, one quick moment can change a life forever. You can never become complacent around crocs.”