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One alligator remains at Hagerman fish farm

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

HAGERMAN – All but one of the thousands of alligators that used to draw curious members of the public to Leo Ray’s fish farm in Hagerman are gone now.

But Ray’s operation, Fish Breeders of Idaho, is still going strong and growing catfish, tilapia, trout and sturgeon for caviar and meat.

Ray, 84, who even grew tropical aquarium fish for a while, has one of the most unique fish farms around, said recently retired University of Idaho aquaculture extension educator Gary Fornshell.

“He certainly is an innovator,” said Fornshell, who has worked alongside Ray on several projects, including his alligator endeavor.   

“He comes up with ideas that many people wouldn’t necessarily do and then pursues them,” Fornshell said. “He’s had a hand in just about all the different fish species grown here in Idaho.”

The operation’s diversity is what helped it to survive the government-ordered restrictions related to COVID-19, Ray said.

“The strength of the company is the diversity,” he said. “The weakness is trying to manage all that diversity.”

Ray has been producing fish in Idaho since 1971, when he left his catfish operation in California and moved to Idaho to take advantage of the geothermal water available in Idaho’s Magic Valley area.

The alligators used to get all the attention at Ray’s fish farm but now it’s the sturgeon that draw the curiosity of the public and media.

“Sturgeon is the big attraction now,” Ray said.

They’re also the work horse on the farm, he added, since they save him thousands of dollars a year in ditch maintenance by keeping the moss out of his fish ponds.

But it’s the catfish that has paid the bills through the decades.

“Catfish has been a very good fish for us,” Ray said.

Originally from Oklahoma, Ray earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Oklahoma. After one of his professors received a grant to study catfish farming, Ray got a job working on that project “and I spent the rest of my life raising fish, mainly catfish.”

Ray and his wife, Judy, started their first catfish farm in the Imperial Valley of California in 1968 but moved to Idaho after seeing the potential of the geothermal water available in the Hagerman area.

They started in Idaho with catfish and then added tilapia, creating the first commercial tilapia farm in the United States.

They added trout production in 1978 and then sturgeon in 1988 and the operation now has a sturgeon processing facility as well.

Fish Breeders of Idaho added Idaho white sturgeon caviar to their product line in 2004 and marketed it as the “American beluga.”

The sturgeon are sold both for their caviar and meat but Ray believes sturgeon meat has a higher upside.

“I think sturgeon will expand and will one day be one of the major fish grown in Idaho,” he said. “I think sturgeon will become more profitable for their meat than their caviar because for caviar you have to grow them for about 10 years and for meat, you can sell them in three or four years.”

Alligators were added to the operation in the 1990s and for a time, they were pretty profitable, being sold for their meat and hides.

Fish Breeders of Idaho raised about 10,000 alligators over a decade, Ray said.

“That was pretty successful,” Fornshell said of Ray’s alligator operation. “He had customers from all around interested in (them).”

But then it was discovered that alligators could carry West Nile Virus and potentially pass it on to humans.

Ray, who was bringing alligator hatchlings to Idaho, said he didn’t want the gators to spread it in the state, so the alligator operation was ended, although he kept 13 big ones in a caged pen on his property.

He sold one of the remaining gators a few years back and now a lone 10-foot alligator remains on his property.

“I leave him there to let people look at,” Ray said.

The availability of geothermal water has been one of the keys to his operation’s success, Ray said. Obviously, alligators couldn’t be raised in Idaho without it, he said, but it’s also required to raise catfish and tilapia in the state.

Fish Breeders of Idaho does that by mixing the geothermal water from wells with colder surface water. This allows the operation to maintain a perfect temperature for difference fish species.

Ray said another one of the keys to his success over the decades has been his use of university research.

“Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always worked with the university system,” he said. “It’s the biggest resource you can possibly have.”