Bayou Profile | MG Farms
article by April Honaker
photography by Kelly Moore Clark
Crawfish have a long history of cultural and culinary significance in Louisiana that dates back to the 1700s. During that time, the French-speaking Acadians were displaced from Canada and settled in large numbers west of New Orleans. They soon began eating crawfish because they needed a reliable food source, and the mudbugs were plentiful and not too hard to collect.
For many years, crawfish were little more than a good source of dietary protein among Cajuns, but that changed in 1960 when Breaux Bridge hosted the first annual crawfish festival. The festival was so well received that the popularity of crawfish skyrocketed. During this new era, the tiny crustaceans found themselves appearing in growing numbers in the boiling pots and on the tables of people from many different backgrounds and even in restaurants.
Today, according to one online list, more than 30 restaurants in Lafayette serve crawfish during crawfish season. Indeed, few Louisianans can say they’ve never attended a crawfish boil or tasted crawfish etouffee.
Alongside this rise in crawfish popularity came a rise in commercial crawfish farming. Over time, demand for the lowly mudbug has spread beyond Louisiana’s borders throughout the country and even around the world. For this reason, crawfish now have a big impact on the Louisiana economy. According to Ron Smith of Farm Progress, crawfish are now responsible for an impact of greater than $423 million in Louisiana.
In September of 2020, Molly and James Thomas became contributors to this impact. The Thomases purchased MG Vermillion Farms, an established crawfish farm at that time, and they are now in their third crawfish season. According to James, the farm has about 1700 crawfish traps, and it takes about 2 full days to fish the whole farm, more if it’s producing a lot. But the farm is much more than a crawfish farm to the Thomases.
Molly and James both grew up in north Louisiana. James was born and raised in Delhi and grew up on his family’s farm where they grew corn, soy beans, and cotton. Molly was born in Monroe and raised in Rayville. Both of them grew up with a love for the outdoors and developed an unquenchable taste for rural life.
After some moves to finish their educations, Molly was offered a position in oncology in Lafayette. As a real estate appraiser, James could work virtually anywhere, so the couple moved from Shreveport to Lafayette almost 10 years ago.
Eventually the pair started yearning for a place to escape from the pressures of work and city life, a place that would remind them more of home and the time they had spent outside during their childhoods. After some years of looking for the right property to serve as a weekend getaway, James found the crawfish farm that they now own.
He happened onto the property by chance while appraising a nearby property. The for-sale sign out front caught his eye, and he drove in to check it out, met the owner, and went from there. According to James, he and Molly were not really looking for a crawfish farm, but it turned out to be a good fit. “I thought we could make some decent money and have a place to enjoy,” he said, “but making money was not the original plan.”
In the beginning, having a place to escape to was their main priority. “I have a stressful job,” Molly said, “so to be able to go somewhere and just be in nature and not have anything to do except ride the four-wheeler around has been nice.” As Molly pointed out, land doesn’t always pay for itself, so for the Thomases, it was an unexpected blessing that the perfect property for their weekend getaway was also a working crawfish farm. “Having something that’s profitable,” Molly said, “has just been an added bonus.”
After James found the property, they did not purchase it immediately. It stayed on the market for a while, but James said they eventually settled on a price, and the farm became theirs, equipment and all.
The previous owner, Russell Dehart, was retiring, so the farm came with everything they needed to keep it going. It had been in Dehart’s family for a long time. Then, over the years, the property was diluted and split up, but Dehart had made some efforts to put at least some of the original pieces back together.
James said, “It’s just a really neat place.” There was an old homesite that they have now turned into a camp, and they spend most of their weekends there. The site is also home to some really old live oaks. According to Molly, at least two of them are more than 200 years old, and some of them have been twisted and warped by hurricanes, but they continue to stand watch over the property, adding a certain old-world beauty and nostalgia.
James and Molly named the farm MG Vermillion Farms after their daughter Mairin Grace and because the farm is located in Vermillion Parish. Mairin will be three in May and Molly and James are especially grateful for her because she was a miracle, in vitro baby. In fact, when they were looking for their home away from home, another dream they had for the property was that it would serve as a place for Mairin to grow up in the country and learn how to have a vegetable garden and chickens. Basically, they wanted to give her the opportunity to learn how to be self-sustaining.
She’s still very young, but Molly and James said she gets really excited every time they go to the farm. “She starts jumping up and down when we pull into the driveway,” James said. “She loves it. It’s a wide open space where she can run and play and not have to worry about getting dirty. She loves to look at the cows and pick wildflowers.” That’s what they wanted for her.
Because the couple purchased the farm during COVID, they faced some early setbacks, especially in terms of getting their camp ready, knowing how to manage the farm, and finding and keeping help.
With regard to the camp, Molly said, “We really thought we never would be in there, but here we are now.” The camp was originally a storage building with two roll-up doors, but now it finally looks like a home with bedrooms, an office, and a full bathroom. It took nearly two years and many delays to get the home finished, especially with two hurricanes and COVID delays, but they did it.
Another struggle along the way was just learning how a crawfish farm works. In fact, Molly said that although James is the primary one responsible for running the farm, learning how things work and when and where to do things has been the biggest challenge for them. In many ways, they tried to pick up right where Dehart left off, but neither of them had ever experienced life on a crawfish farm before.
“It’s been completely foreign to anything I’ve ever done,” James said. At the same time, some of his experiences on his childhood farm have come in handy. For example, knowing how to fix things, especially equipment, has been a huge help. Being willing to get his hands dirty has also come in handy, as keeping good help has been a recurring challenge.
One thing that definitely came with a learning curve is driving the crawfish boat. Crawfish boats come with paddles and large hydraulic motors. According to James, driving one is not like driving an ordinary boat for fishing. You have to be able to drive in a straight line with your feet and grab traps at the same time.
Pulling the traps can get interesting as well. James said there are often snakes in the traps, but you can’t really tell until you pull them. Sometimes the snakes are harmless water snakes, but sometimes they’re the more dangerous kind. Molly said they made sure early on that the nearest hospital in Abbeville has snake antivenom on hand.
James said that so far the experience of owning the farm has involved a lot of trial and error, and sometimes Mother Nature cooperates, and sometimes she doesn’t. For example, this year has not been the best for crawfish farmers across the state, and no one really knows why. To compensate, James has planted some rice with the intention of harvesting it. That’s always an option, but he said they usually don’t plant rice until August, and then it’s only for the crawfish.
Despite the challenges, overall the Thomases would agree their crawfish farm venture has been a success. It has met their need for a place to escape and has been productive enough on the crawfish front that James’s is considering possibly branching out in the future to include additional farms. He may even make crawfish farming a full-time gig. “I love it,” James said. “Going from knowing nothing to running my own farm has been really rewarding, and when you start pulling traps, it makes up for all the other stuff.”
James hopes people enjoy eating the crawfish as much as he does and that they will keep eating them. Molly said they plan to continue to add things to the property that will increase its value, not only to them but from an outsider’s perspective as well. They hope to one day have a pond built, maybe have some duck and dove hunting, and try to maximize what they already have. In the meantime, they will continue to enjoy all the things MG Vermillion Farms has to offer, whether it’s a successful crawfish season, the freedom of a four-wheeler ride across the property, or watching a beautiful sunset from their porch. Their investment has definitely been worth it.