Posted June 7, 2017
On a warm summer afternoon in Louisiana, a chef pours Cajun seasoning into a boiling pot to season the crawfish inside. The sharp aroma of cayenne pepper, garlic and other spices wafts from the steaming pot. Natural gas flames heating the kettle is a tradition in this part of the country: Families and friends, sitting elbow to elbow, cracking shells, sucking the juices from crawfish heads and relishing each tender, meaty bite from the tail.
By the start of summer in Louisiana, crawfish season already is well underway, thanks in large part to the family-owned operations of all sizes that dot the state that produces 90 percent of the country’s domestic crawfish crop, according to the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board. (BTW, if you pronounce it “craaay-fish,” you’ll give away your status as an outsider!) As the crawfish capital of the world, Louisiana’s farmers and chefs alike work day-in and day-out during the season to bring this product to the masses, including David McGraw, owner of Louisiana Crawfish Co.:
“It started as a hobby and evolved through the product because we enjoyed the aqua culture so much. We’ve been able to grow to what we are today, but it started as a love for the land.”
Farmers like McGraw rely on their love for the waterman’s life and the knowledge passed down to them from previous generations to make a living that provides a product enjoyed by chefs, their patrons and individual Louisiana households. They also rely on various forms of energy that support their operations from pond to plate.
Flat-Bottom Boats that Power an Industry
Crawfish farming accounts for approximately 88 percent of the harvest in Louisiana – as opposed to wild-caught crawfish. While some small-scale farmers walk into the water or use paddle boats to catch crawfish, the larger operations use gasoline-powered boats designed with air-cooled or long-shaft engines with flat bottoms made from aluminum that use premium fuel and motor oil.
On his farm, McGraw uses hydraulic wheel-driven boats specially made for shallow water ponds and can sometimes go from water to land. In these boats, a fuel-powered engine drives a hydraulic pump that turns the wheel, helping to steer the boat and control its speed. This allows the crawfish farmer to steadily move along the line of their wire mesh crawfish traps, pulling them in, sorting the catch and rebaiting as they go. These boats can collect several thousand pounds of crawfish each day.
McGraw says he and his team use approximately 500 gallons of gasoline during the year to power their boats, pulling the fuel from 500-gallon tanks on site that they continually refill. These tanks also provide fuel for tractors that are used to create crawfish ponds and also for work on levy systems. Some farmers produce rice in these same fields as a secondary crop, and use combines and other farm equipment to harvest it. McGraw’s farm alone uses 6,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel every year. Multiplied over the 1,600 other farms producing crawfish across the state, and you get a feel for the energy Louisiana’s crawfish industry uses to harvest its crop.
Energy also is needed in the manufacturing of the aluminum used in most crawfish boats. Aluminum production in the United States generally starts with bauxite ore, a rock formed from laterite soil, which is imported from Jamaica and South America. Producers then convert the bauxite into alumina using natural gas plants, mainly in the southern U.S. The alumina then goes through a process called smelting to convert it into aluminum. Manufacturers also use aluminum scrap as a secondary production material. This involves melting the scrap down in a natural gas-fired furnace.
Gathering Family and Friends for a Crawfish Boil
The combined annual yield of crawfish produced or caught in Louisiana ranges from 120 million to 150 million pounds. McGraw says that Louisiana Crawfish Co. shipped close to 3 million pounds last year across the U.S., Canada and even into the Caribbean. That’s a lot of crawfish that need to find their way to hungry customers. Some farmers use their own trucks, while McGraw and his team use FedEx, UPS and air-freights to ship their products locally, nationally and internationally, all of which depend on fuels made from petroleum and natural gas to deliver.
After receiving their order of crawfish, restaurant chefs and backyard boilers alike prepare for their crawfish feasts by mixing up spicy seasoning and cutting potatoes, garlic, corn and other sides for the meal. And whether it’s a novice pulling out an outdoor table-top propane cooker or a trained sous chef firing up a commercial-grade burner, natural gas and petroleum typically supply the energy to bring things to a boil.
Supporting the Local Economy
More than 7,000 people in Louisiana rely on the state’s crawfish industry for work, an industry whose annual value exceeds $300 million. McGraw says there’s a growing number of people moving from growing rice to crawfish farming:
“Louisiana is dependent on crawfish. The market is growing, and it’s a strong economic factor here.”
That’s why each year, as spring turns into summer across Louisiana, the prevailing thought is crawfish. Whether you prefer eating yours boiled over a newspaper-covered table or inétouffée like McGraw, this tasty summertime tradition is brought to you by natural gas and petroleum.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.