Lenten season is to crawfish farmers what Christmas season is to retailers. It provides an economic windfall the crawfish industry welcomes — and relies on — each year.
But with COVID-19 ravaging, and Good Friday and Easter just days away, that windfall has become jeopardized.
“We’re kind of in the peak of the harvest season,” says crawfish specialist Mark Shirley of the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant. “We’re having a good crawfish season production-wise.”
But, Shirley quickly adds, “The market obviously has changed.”
That change, brought on by the perils of the pandemic, means the state’s crawfish industry is not shipping its products to major markets in Houston, Dallas, Memphis and the Gulf Coast.
“The market is still there, but to a smaller extent,” Shirley notes.
Also at stake is whether Louisiana residents plan to curtail their seasoned celebration of crawfish boils. That remains unknown. But what is fact is that the Christian holiday, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, has also become a cultural tradition.
What it boils down to is can we enjoy family and friends, and still maintain social distancing? One local official is concerned some residents are already kicking caution to the curb, and not taking safety guidelines seriously.
“I go and ride through my neighborhoods and see how people are acting, and I don’t like what I’m seeing,” says Lafayette Parish Councilman Abraham Rubin, who represents District 5.
He is worried the situation may only compound as the Lenten season comes to an end.
“Watch Good Friday — everybody and their nan-nan’s going to have a crawfish boil,” he warns, “and you’re going to have a million people at their house, and that ain’t right.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Rubin adds, “but we need to do something.”
Shirley is hoping what residents will do is respect one another’s space during Holy Week, which he calls “a tremendous market for Louisiana crawfish.”
But even Shirley admits that staying apart can be a problem, particularly in South Louisiana.
“We’re social animals. We like to get together with families and friends,” he says. “Well — we can’t do that.”
Like Rubin, Shirley is hoping residents take heed.
“We can’t necessarily get together 20-30 people at someone’s house,” he says, “but maybe we can with our own individual families.”
Louisiana’s love for crawfish has kept the crawfish industry growing, with 50-60 percent of the crawfish consumed or processed here, according to Shirley. Packaged boiled crawfish and other processed products that the state is able to ship across the world are another shot in the arm for local farmers and processors. Marketing strategies that have tripled the number of crawfish drive-thru and pickup outlets may be the lifeline for some farmers.
“It’s not replacing the markets we had,” Shirley says, “but it’s helping quite a bit.”
Under normal conditions in past years, farmers would be harvesting five or even seven days of the week right now, Shirley says. “Now the harvest may be three days a week.”
As more people become unemployed and budgets get tighter and tighter, Shirley is practical about the future of crawfish when it comes to customers.
“They may not go out and eat crawfish as much as they do,” he says.
Nonetheless, Shirley is confident that Holy Week will be different — or rather, the same as in the past.
“I think people will still enjoy for this week, sacrifice whatever they can to get their crawfish,” he says, “and we’ll have to see if it slows down after Easter.”
Rubin fears these celebrations could be costly, another vehicle for more community spread of coronavirus.
“Enjoy just your family, your immediate family, in your house,” he says. “I wouldn’t let anyone else come.”
And that is exactly what he plans to do this holiday.