HAGERMAN • South-central Idaho might be on the verge of making a splash on the national caviar scene.
Leo Ray, owner of Fish Processors of Idaho, learned Friday that his business won a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote his caviar nationwide. Ray received a Value-Added Producer Grant, designed to help farmers advertise new products and build economies in rural communities.
“We’ll see if we can’t build a national market for Idaho caviar,” a thrilled Ray said Monday night.
The 74-year-old has raised fish such as rainbow trout, catfish and tilapia for about 40 years on farms in the Magic Valley. About six years ago, he began harvesting white sturgeon caviar, which is considered a “value-added” product because it brings in revenue on top of mere meat sales.
The caviar side of Ray’s business has been a long time coming. To produce eggs, sturgeon must be 10 to 15 years old.
For the past six years, Ray has produced caviar in relatively small quantities — about 300 pounds annually. Now a much larger batch of sturgeon are at last old enough to produce the expensive, glistening, black beads. During the next one to three years, Ray plans to multiply his caviar production tenfold, to as much as 3,000 pounds annually.
At $28.40 an ounce wholesale (it goes for as much as $100 retail), Ray has brought in about $150,000 in revenue annually from caviar sales in the past six years. If all goes according to plan, revenue could skyrocket to $1.5 million soon.
It sounds like a lot, but Ray said it’s tough to make a profit producing caviar.
“In the sturgeon industry, I’m not sure anybody can say they’ve ever made any money on caviar,” said Ray, who harvests an average of 4 or 5 pounds of caviar from a single female sturgeon. “Can you feed a fish for 14 years and be profitable?”
The University of Oklahoma zoology graduate hopes so. The grant can’t hurt his chances.
Ray will spend the grant money on creating a website, printing informational flyers and attending trade shows in places like Boston and Chicago. He’ll set up booths and entice distributors to bring his caviar to the masses.
“Bottom line: It’s often difficult for an ag producer to open up a new market,” said Tobin Dixon, specialist with USDA Rural Development. “So it’s a grant that sort of helps them over that hump.”
Last week’s round of grant awards also included Value-Added Producer Grants of $300,000 each to Moss Produce of Rupert and CloverLeaf Creamery of Buhl.
Fish Processors of Idaho employee Starla Barnes wrote the Hagerman company’s grant proposal. The business must match any money it receives from the USDA.
“It means we’re starting a $600,000 marketing campaign,” Ray said.
The company already has caviar distributors in Seattle and New York.
“For us to choose Leo’s product, it has to meet our criteria,” said David Magnotta, owner of Caviar Russe, a New York-based company that aims to sell the best caviar available. “(Ray), as well as our other producers, are what we consider the best at what they do.”
And praise from the other side of the country:
“Leo produces a beautiful caviar,” said Dale Sherrow, owner of Seattle Caviar, which distributes Ray’s product. “Leo is hands-on. He knows his fish, he touches his fish, he’s got his boots on, he’s in the water. It’s not an industrial production.”
Though Ray plans to increase production, Sherrow said Ray is still running a relatively small operation.
“It takes him to the next level,” Sherrow said. “But in the big scheme of things, 3,000 pounds is not a huge amount. He’s still going to be hands-on.”
Ray’s business is a tight-knit operation. Bookkeeper Betty Clemmons says it’s an honor when she’s asked to taste-test caviar.
“In this little area, it’s not something that a lot of people eat,” Clemmons said.
Her granddaughter loves it. At age 3 or 4, she helped herself to a heaping scoop.
“She ate it with a spoon,” Clemmons remembered. “She just shoveled it in.”
Ray hopes caviar connoisseurs like Idaho caviar as much as Clemmons’ granddaughter does.
At 74, he doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. He’s the fourth generation in his family tree to be married for 50 years. Ray said it means two things:He comes from a long line of men who are easy to live with, and he’s got longevity in his genes.
“I’ve got another 20 years of work in me,”he said.
Ray calls his caviar his “401(k) plan.” Instead of investing in stocks, he’s been feeding sturgeon. He hopes it’ll pay off with a nice, ahem, nest egg for him and his wife, Judith.
“The caviar is going to be the icing on the cake,”Ray said.