Despite economic hardships, a few Archer hunting preserves thrive
Swaddled in the arms of his owner, a seven-month-old German Shorthaired Pointer contests a ride-along in the bed of Jacob “Huck” Huckabee’s white Chevrolet truck.
At Emerald Creek Kennels in Archer, Dude is the youngest of Huckabee’s 14 hunting dogs that he trains alongside his wife, Logan, and their four-legged customers.
“He’s pissed,” Huckabee shouted to his wife as the puppy barked continuously in protest. “That’s Dude.”
For the last six years, the two of them have built the foundation for a successful bird hunting and dog training business out of Watermelon Pond Plantation. But as their business has grown, the Huckabees have had a hard time finding help, even after posting an ad on Facebook.
The national labor shortage and rising prices following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have come home to roost in North Central Florida. And that has made it difficult for small businesses around the state to succeed, like the Huckabees and other rural outdoor recreation. In Florida, the low 2.7% unemployment rate in July and August explains the increasingly tight labor market.
Huckabee said it would be nice to have younger help feeding the dogs and completing daily tasks, but he has not found anyone.
“It seems to be a smaller and smaller community, and it seems like there is not much youth interested or exposed to this industry anymore,” Huckabee said.
One of their mentees, Mitch Caraway, 18, of Baker, Florida, used to help with the shoots before going to college. He said he was sad they could not find new help and worried about the industry overall. Caraway said he did not know any peers working in the hunting industry.
“It's a small industry with the bird-dog world and I don’t want to say it is dying out, but if it wasn't for them, there would be a lot less dogs trained on the ground,” Caraway said.
Inflation causes problems for the Huckabee’s too. Supply chain issues have increased the costs of supplies necessary to maintain their business. He said that even increases of a few dollars for supplies really add up.
“It's getting expensive,” he said. “When you are paying $10 or $11 a bag and then it increases to $13 or $14 a bag, that's a substantial increase when you are buying between 10 and 15 bags of something.”
About six months ago, Huckabee said he raised prices for his kennel customers by $100 for trainings and they have become stricter in keeping to the bird count during shoots. Luckily, he said customers have been sympathetic.
Emerald Creek Kennels raise bobwhite quail, doves and pigeons for controlled shoots on their 800-acre property just south of Ashton Biological Preserve. Designated coveys, or areas where birds gather, are placed near feed strips containing sorghum, millet and dove proso.
When it isn’t hunting season, there is still plenty of dog training and land maintenance to be done, including designated burns to clear parts of the overgrowth in the oak hammock, Huckabee said. However, it is difficult to manage with just the two of them.
Huckabee shows several of his dogs at hunting dog competitions, but Timber, a Boykin Spaniel, and Avery, a German Shorthaired Pointer, are his prized possessions — he likes to call them “the A-team.” If they win, prizes offset their costs.
With competition and regular customers for hunting and training, the Huckabees can stay afloat financially, unlike other hunting preserves.
Angel “Doc” Reyes, 68, is a hunting guide at Timberlake Preserve and a neighbor of the Huckabees. Since retiring from his dentistry practice in 2014, he has run his own pheasant and quail hunting operation in Archer. He, too, has noticed rising costs chasing away other local recreational hunting businesses.
“The birds are expensive as hell,” Reyes said, who purchases pheasants for shooting. In the last few years, he had to switch suppliers and the price more than doubled from $8 to $18 per bird.
Reyes intends to lead about 45 hunts this season and three pheasant shoots for his customers. Later in the season, he will take a group to Argentina and Spain for bird hunting for the first time since 2019.
His first hunt was on Sept. 16, and he is already booked for the rest of the season. Over the last eight years, Reyes has built a loyal clientele. While he can raise the price for them to break even, he admits that he doesn’t do it for the money.
“You do it for the love of it,” Reyes said. “This is my therapy. I tell my wife it is cheaper than a psychiatrist.”
When checking on neighboring preserves, however, Reyes said that some simply don’t exist anymore because the cost of running their business outweighs their profits.
“Other businesses like me are fighting to break even or they have just gone belly up.” Reyes said. “They are suffering just like any other business. It is sad because they are my friends.”
Moving forward, Huckabee and Reyes said they will continue to serve their customers, despite challenges in running their businesses. Logan Huckabee said she can’t imagine doing anything else.
“If you would have asked me five years ago if I would be out here obedience training and guiding and hunting anything that I could, I would have told you you’re crazy,” she said. “But everything happens for a reason. You have to find positivity in everything you do.”