Leo Ray's future is in a tiny glass jar.

The miniature nearly black orbs glistening inside represent almost 17 years of time, money and effort.

And with wholesale prices ranging between $30 and $55 an ounce, the sturgeon eggs could also represent Idaho's most expensive agricultural product.

"Any fish is like a sponge. It tastes like the water it comes out of, and we have the best water in the world here," said Ray, who owns Fish Breeders of Idaho.

It is a premise that Ray, Ark Fisheries owners Lynn and Kathy Babington and other regional fish farmers are banking on. They are raising Snake River sturgeon for their meat and caviar with technical advice from a cooperative made up of the Idaho Aquaculture Association, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the College of Southern Idaho.

This year could be the first big caviar crop. The white sturgeon does not start producing eggs until it is between 8 and 10 years old, and it can take a few years more before the fish matures enough to produce roe suitable for market.

"The biggest challenge is starting young enough to have the time to wait for the caviar to hit the market," Ray said jokingly. "It's my 401(k) retirement plan, and Uncle Sam doesn't have to worry about anyone pulling it out early."

Timing may be everything. The white sturgeon's elite Caspian Sea cousins -- beluga, osetra and sevruga sturgeons -- have set the standards by which every fish egg is measured.

But they are also teetering on the edge of extinction.

Overfishing and poaching have threatened Caspian Sea sturgeon, and the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has given Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan until mid-June to prove they are implementing rules to protect the fish.

Last month, the federal government listed the beluga sturgeon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The move sets the stage for reducing or even banning imports in six months. As of 2002, the United States imported 60 percent of the world's beluga caviar. Experts estimate legal trade to be worth more than $100 million a year, at least 10 times less than the illegal catch from the Caspian region.

Some gourmet restaurants in the United States are turning to the less expensive farm-raised American caviar to fill the gaps left in their menus.

"The demand seems to be there, and it's a matter of marketing and targeting the correct areas and having a quality product," said Terry Patterson, a professor of the College of Southern Idaho's Aquaculture Program. "You have to understand that Idaho caviar is in its infancy compared to, say, California caviar, and we're still looking at where we can go with it, but the potential is very good."

Under the cooperative, the college conducts research and breeds the local stock. Some of the sturgeon are released back into the wild under the auspices of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and some are sold to farmers, with the proceeds funding the program.

The cooperative started in 1987 when area trout farmers began looking for ways to diversify, Patterson said.

Fish and Game officials worried that if farmers imported captive-bred sturgeon from California, some of them could escape into the Snake River and threaten the wild population. But officials were also concerned about maintaining numbers of the local wild sturgeon, which in recent decades had been trapped between the dams along the Snake River.

The cooperative solves both problems, Patterson said, by increasing the local wild population and providing stock for the farms.

"To date we've stocked right near 7,000 fish in the Snake River," Patterson said. "They're all tagged with a computer chip for tracking."

Sturgeon can grow to hundreds of pounds, and some of the farm-raised fish weigh as many as 150 pounds. The eggs can make up more than 10 percent of the body weight, Lynn Babington said.

Harvesting the caviar kills the fish. The entire ovary is removed and carefully rubbed across a screen to separate the eggs from the membrane. The eggs are lightly salted and packed in jars or tins.

During the holiday season, Ray sent samples of his caviar to his steady customers, and now some of them are ordering regularly. Most of his next harvest will be sold before he kills a fish.

Initial tastes have brought rave reviews, and Idaho caviar may someday compete with beluga because of the environmental control a farm offers, Ray said.

"There's a good chance that in the aquaculture environment we can bump it up to the best quality," he said. "It's just about harvesting and adding salt at the right time."

Leo Ray, left, and Lynn Bobington hold an 80-pound sturgeon in Hagerman, Idaho. They have been working to produce quality caviar from the fish.