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Raising turtles a family business.

In a barn near Pierre Part, La., Ruth Blanchard lifted a thin tin sheet. Four hundred red-eared slider turtles opened their tiny black eyes and started crawling in a 2-by-4-foot wooden box. Stepping on each other, stretching their clawed feet, the one-and-a-half-inch long creatures sought to reach the light. Their yellow-and-black striped necks extend to dark-green heads. A bright red mark stretches between the ears and the eyes. A yellow belly is decorated with gray and dark-green spots.

In a few days, the turtles will be sold as pets in Asia.

Blanchard, her husband, Adam, and their two sons own A&B Turtle, one of the 13 turtle farms based in Pierre Part. Most of the nation's turtle farms are located in Louisiana, with 56 such farms. Pierre Part and Jonesville are the major centers.

"It's almost like a triangle," Blanchard said. "You have a concentrated number in north Louisiana. A concentrated number around the Hammond and Springfield area. And then again here in the south."

At a rate of 60 cents per turtle, A&B Turtle provides an extra income for the Blanchards, who all work full time jobs elsewhere. Blanchard is a librarian at a high school in Napoleonville, while her husband is a plant technician for Dow Chemicals. They hire a couple of helpers in the summer for the busiest period in the turtle business.

The Blanchards' property faces Bayou Corne. Behind the two-story, red brick house stand a white barn and a circular, three-acre, 4-foot-deep pond--home to 10,000 breeder turtles that produce 50,000 turtles each year. Since the 1970s, the government has banned turtle sales in the United States, so the farmers market their unusual pets overseas.

The Blanchards mainly raise red-ear sliders, the most common type of turtle of the 17 species that inhabit Louisiana. The water-and-land turtles can reach the size of a dinner plate when full grown.

"They are not ferocious," Blanchard said. "That's why they make the best pets."

The Blanchards occasionally raise transparent soft-shell turtles, loggerhead turtles and Mississippi map turtles whose olive carapace presents a black stripe along the vertebral scutes. Asian customers consider these reptiles exotic and buy them at a higher price.

"Each one is different like a fingerprint, so it makes it a limited edition," Blanchard said.

The turtles hibernate on the bottom of the pond. They wait for the reproductive season--between April and July--to lay their eggs on the shore.

The Blanchards built concrete ramps for breeder turtles to climb on the banks of the pond where they lay their eggs in shallow nests.

"They just learned the routine real quickly They're creatures of habit," Blanchard said. "You know, they climb up the little ramp, then they follow along the fence and they go into this grassy area."

Winter grass and weeds invade the egg-laying area that stretches, a dozen feet from the pond. Blanchard explained that the farmers will clean up the area and work cardboard and paper ashes into the ground.

"It makes the ground warm and soft, and it's easy for the turtles to dig their holes to drop their eggs in," she said. After the turtles cover their eggs to hide them from predators, they return to the pond.

"They sun themselves and show how proud they are," she said.

Every afternoon of the reproductive season, the farmers collect the eggs after the turtles have returned to the pond.

"If they are disturbed," Blanchard said, "they will stop laying, and they will go into the water and they may drop the rest of their eggs. So it's like knowing their habits and respecting them too. I think it's how comfortable they are with the workers of the pond."

Breeder turtles can live up to 60 years. To feed the creatures from April to November, the Blanchards installed floating troughs next to the egg-laying area. The troughs contain fish pellets and wheat grain. In the wild, turtles eat small fish, frogs and what farmers call duck weed--a floating, green, granular grass that grows in thin carpets around waterlilies. The farmers collect waterlilies in the bayous and transfer them to the pond.

"They'll eat what's in their habitat," Blanchard said. "If dead fish come up floating, they'll take care of the environment. They'll eat the fish."

The Blanchards avoid using floating fish pellets that might contaminate the water.

"These are breeder animals," she said. "We want to keep them safe and healthy because once they lay eggs, any diseases are transferred to the eggs. If it's within the egg shell the baby turtle will have it too."

When the government banned turtle sales in the United States, the farmers turned to French, Danish, Spanish and Greek markets. Then they expanded to Taiwan, China, Japan and Korea.

The farmers follow the state department of agriculture's guidelines concerning animal health standards. After collection, the turtle eggs are rinsed with water and a bleach solution.

"That takes off the threat of any major bacterial growth," Blanchard said. "These eggs are laid in moist, warm areas where bacteria thrive. Turtle eggs are very porous, therefore anything on the outside will go to the inside."

After the eggs are disinfected, they are stored by sets of 160 on metallic grids in rectangular plastic boxes.

The eggs incubate for two months. Just before they are ready to hatch, the eggs are placed on shelves in a room where the temperature is maintained at 80 degrees.

"A temperature that is too high would definitely cause a hatchling not to hatch," Blanchard said. The workers check the eggs and remove those that do not hatch to avoid possible contamination.

When they hatch, the turtles are placed in wooden trays in a cold room. The 60-degree temperature puts the turtles in hibernation where they can survive for several months.

The reptiles remain in the cold room until they are: placed by sets of 500 in patented, pre-assembled boxes the size of a large pizza box. The boxes have slits on the sides to allow air to circulate to the animals. Each box is marked with the species enclosed and has "live animals" written on it.

Spaniards started turtle farms in the late 1800s near Grand Isle. The farmers collected eggs for edible turtles, such as snappers, from the banks of the bayous. The turtle business stretched to the Cajun community in the early 1920s, when residents looked for inventive ways to make a living from the land, becoming farmers and cattlemen.

"They made businesses from what they were familiar with," Blanchard said. "They knew the waterways, they knew the seasons, they knew what was here."

When Pierre Part residents saw large turtles on French markets, they had the idea of keeping eggs to, raise and selling the turtles for a nickel apiece. They installed turtle ponds in their back yards and let cypress trees grow in the water, "making it as much as a part of nature that (the turtles) were used to, so it wouldn't be a culture shock," Blanchard said. "They were just moving them from one street to the next."

The farmers encircled the ponds with tin fences to prevent the turtles from escaping.

Blanchard inherited A&B Turtle from her father, Edward Alleman. He started raising turtles in the 1950s.

"He made a very successful business of it," Blanchard said. At one time, the business produced a million turtles annually, making it one of the largest farms in the area.

To keep the business small, the Blanchards use only one of the three ponds they inherited, and their profit depends heavily on the weather.

"You have your good years, you have your bad years," Blanchard said. "It's kind of like the stock market. You have to stay with it. The weather is our best friend and our worst enemy. The hotter it is, the better for the turtles."

Despite the obstacles, Blanchard feels they should keep A&B Turtle, because "it's part of where we grew up. This is part of who we are. It's part of our heritage."
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Author:Alis, Celine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 15, 2002
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