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Mississippi catfish farms face lean days
GREENVILLE -- The 1990s were times of growth and prosperity for the catfish industry, but these days, Delta farmer Brent Johnson would just like to break even on his production costs.
Johnson said catfish are bringing between 55 and 56 cents a pound when he sells them to processors. Since it costs him close to 70 cents a pound to grow the fish, he is losing money on every pond he harvests this year.
Johnson is CEO of Aqua Farms, a 2,100-acre catfish farm in Washington County near Greenville. Owners John T. Dillard, and J.W. and Julia Potter started the farm in 1969 with 80 acres of ponds.
Today, Aqua Farms is one of the larger such operations in the state that leads the country in catfish production. Mississippi had 112,700 acres of catfish ponds in 2001, and 58 percent of the nation's catfish production. Most of these acres are found in the Delta, an area known for its cotton but which also provides ideal conditions for pond construction.
"The land right here is poor, poor clay soil. It's not good for cotton, not suitable for soybeans, and there wasn't a lot of irrigation available," Johnson said. "However, it was good for catfish ponds because the clay soil holds water really well, and groundwater is plentiful."
To build a Mississippi catfish pond, farmers scrape the top 6 inches of soil from a 12- to 17-acre rectangular area and push it to the sides to make levees. Ponds are 4 1/2 to 5 feet deep and are built side by side, with levees wide enough to drive farm equipment between the ponds.
Johnson's ponds average 20 acres in size.
"In the early years, we tended to build them larger, but now we build them smaller," he said. "The ideal size is 12 acres. We haven't built any in three years, but we renovate continually because of erosion and pond maintenance."
At any time, Aqua Farms has about 10 percent of its ponds in renovation. The farm's water acreage has expanded through the years as time and money permitted, with the majority of the expansion occurring in the 1980s.
"Markets were being developed and processing capacity was just coming on-line really well then," Johnson said of that era.
Aqua Farms sells fish 52 weeks a year and does its own harvesting. They hatch fry, stock the fingerlings, grow out their catfish, harvest the fish and load them on the processor's trucks.
Ownership is exchanged at the pond bank when processors pay growers by the pound of live fish harvested. Johnson said his farm harvests 75,000 to 80,000 pounds of fish from one 20-acre pond. In a year, they harvest 9 million pounds of live catfish, which have a processed weight of about 4 million pounds.
Harvest workers seine ponds using netting to catch the size of fish the grower wants to harvest. Once seined, large baskets scoop and load fish into water-filled tanks, and they are transported live to the processing plant. Six men make up the seining crew, and the farm employs 25 year-round, and 30 in the summer.
Mississippi farmers are producing fish weighing 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. As recently as a few years ago, farmers were selling 3/4 to 1 pound fish, and the added size means a whole extra growing season.
Jimmy Avery, aquaculture specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said farmers started growing bigger fish to try to reclaim a portion of the fillet market lost to fish imported from Vietnam and sold as farm-raised catfish.
"At one time, small fillets were 20 percent of our fillet market," Avery said. "We made more money on that small, premium fillet than on any other product, but the imports won almost 100 percent of that market. Producers shifted to growing a larger fish to try to develop markets other than the small fillet."
Avery said it takes nearly a whole season longer to grow out the larger catfish, and this increased time is an additional financial risk growers face.
"You've got an animal that has a 36-month risk exposure instead of the much shorter time it takes to grow some of the other meat animals," Avery said. "Catfish farmers face a much greater risk factor than many other producers."
Johnson said the business is cash intensive as farmers incur costs and bills year-round, rather than predominately twice a year as with many agricultural commodities. Johnson said Aqua Farms spends $100,000 a week on feed during the warm feeding months.
Production challenges facing the industry are bird depredation -- cormorants like the easy feeding commercial ponds allow -- high feed costs and fluctuating oxygen levels.
"As we get into the summer months, crews work all night to monitor oxygen levels. We're pushing Mother Nature to the limit, and we have to aerate to supply enough oxygen to the ponds at night," Johnson said. "If you've got a pond that's really low on oxygen, you can lose a lot of fish in a matter of minutes."
MSU is actively involved in supporting the catfish industry in the state. Researchers are working on a variety of issues that affect the profitability of this crop.
Off-flavor fish at harvest is a major management problem the industry faces, and several research projects are trying to improve growers' ability to combat this problem. U.S. Department of Agriculture and MSU researchers developed and released a new strain of catfish in 2001 known as NWAC-103 that grows up to 20 percent faster than other catfish strains. MSU economists also developed a Windows-based software program called Fishy to help farmers manage their watery crop inventory.
Other research is working to improve the immunity catfish have to several common diseases, improve spawning, minimize environmental impact, streamline harvest and develop the most efficient feed.