Saturday, June 16, 2001

Frog farm seen as gold mine

By Elliott Minor
The Associated Press

        ALAPAHA, Ga. — Southerners have been trying, and failing, to make money raising frogs for decades.

        But Ken Holyoak claims his system of raising bullfrogs can end the frog deficit and allow Americans to enjoy homegrown frog legs, a white tender meat with a taste somewhere between crab meat and chicken.

        “People in the United States look sort of stupid,” said Mr. Holyoak, 63, a fish farmer for nearly four decades. “They can put a man on the moon, but they can't grow frogs.”

[photo] Half-pound bullfrogs can be produced at a profit using his system, says Ken Holyoak of Georgia.
(Associated Press photo)
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        The United States imported 3.7 million pounds of frogs — most for frog legs or for dissecting in science classes — last year.

        Experts say it would take a large leap of faith to believe a Georgia farmer has come up with a way to produce frog legs that can compete with imports from Asia or Latin America.

        Mr. Holyoak, owner of Ken's Hatchery & Fish Farms Inc., said he studied frog farms in 33 countries, including China, Brazil and Korea, before perfecting his system. “We've got so much potential in this country,” he said.

Ken's research center

        In a metal building on his 1,500-acre farm near Alapaha, Mr. Holyoak has established Ken's North American Raniculture Research Center, where he studies and raises bullfrogs. Mr. Holyoak said he doesn't want to sell frog legs. He sells frogs and hopes to distribute a complete frog-growing system to would-be farmers.

        No one has purchased the system, but several people who have attended his $1,000-per-person frog-raising seminars have expressed interest, he said.

        Mr. Holyoak says his system is not a fad. “We don't want to get a bad name like the emu people.”

        In the 1990s, investors poured money into emu and ostrich farming after marketers promised demand would rise for the lean meat of the big birds. The market never developed and most emu farmers were stuck with expensive, hungry birds they could not sell.

        Bullfrogs are difficult to raise. Mr. Holyoak estimates only 1 percent survive to adulthood in the wild because of an array of predators. They also eat each other, so they must be separated in captivity.

        Bullfrogs are fussy eaters, preferring live insects. Mr. Holyoak said he has trained his frogs to eat feed pellets.

        He said he has designed a feeding machine that mimics the movements of insects, but he's keeping it under wraps until he gets a patent. Some foreign farms use machines that vibrate the pellets so the frog thinks it is alive.

        “It's how you present it to them and the type of feed,” Mr. Holyoak said.

Raised in captivity

        Inside his frog building are rows of metal racks, filled with 4- by 3-foot plastic trays stacked four or five high. The frogs live and grow in the trays. Nylon mesh keeps them in.

        Mr. Holyoak said he can grow frogs to edible size — about 1/2 pound — in 180 days, instead of the customary two to three years in the wild.

        Frog legs sell for about $3.84 per pound in the United States. Gary Burtle, a University of Georgia aquaculture specialist, estimates that a frog farmer would need to get a little more than $4 per pound to make it worthwhile.

        Mr. Holyoak said his system can produce them for as little as $2 per pound, not including the cost of land, buildings and labor. But Mr. Burtle and Greg Lutz, an aquaculture specialist at Louisiana State University, seemed skeptical about the potential of frog farming.

        Mr. Lutz said high land and labor costs rule it out in the Southeast, and Mr. Burtle said feed costs could also be a factor.

        “The types of frog food that would be permissible ... might not be what they're using in South America,” he said. “They may be using maggots ... that are coming off dead poultry. So you go from a cheap source of live food in South America to no source of live food that's acceptable to the U.S.”

        Mr. Holyoak thinks Americans would be willing to pay a higher price for consistent quality.

        “It turns a lot of people off when the establishments tell you can't do it,” he said.

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