RJ Note: Memories-- light the corners of my--lip smacking youth. As a child growing up in the deep south, one of the most popular restaurants was a catfish joint. They were all over the place. When you were seated, it wasn't at a table in a room chock full of tables. No sir. You got your own room with a long table. That way, there was plenty of room for the platters of catfish, hushpuppies, and french fries. Ah memories. Why don't we have any great catfish eateries any more?
BUSINESS WIRE --A traveler making his way through the South from other parts of the country might come upon the unfamiliar sight of acres upon acres of similarly shaped, man-made ponds and wonder what in the world they are. But for many Southerners, these freshwater catfish farms are as common a sight as rows of cotton and soybeans, and just as valuable to the region’s economy.
The month of August was designated as National Catfish Month by Congress in the late 1980s to highlight contributions the U.S. catfish industry makes to the economy, while providing consumers with a healthy, safe and great-tasting product. Each year, four states that produce the majority of the nation’s catfish – Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi – recognize their most respected and successful farmers as “Catfish Farmers of the Year.”
This August, The Catfish Institute (TCI), the marketing arm of the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish industry, is celebrating National Catfish Month with the debut of a new ad campaign featuring three of these farmers in national magazines including Cooking With Paula Deen, Saveur and Food Arts. The advertisements depict Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi’s Catfish Farmers of the Year standing on a catfish pond bank, alongside Food Network celebrity chef and catfish industry spokesperson Cat Cora. The ads focus on the relationship between the chef and the farmer and key in on the catfish’s great taste, all-natural feed and earth-friendly benefits.
“These gentlemen are all prime examples of the leadership quality of the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish industry,” says Roger Barlow, president of TCI. “They are good farmers and good businessmen, and they continue to operate successfully, even as our industry faces challenges from a struggling U.S. economy.”
“The biggest current challenge to the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish industry is the cost of catfish feed ingredients, primarily corn and soybeans – commodities that have increased dramatically over the last year," says Barlow.
All three Catfish Farmers of the Year mentioned high feed costs as a concern when they were interviewed separately, and each of them are dealing with it in different ways. In addition, all were appreciative of the title of Catfish Farmer of the Year, a recognition awarded by their colleagues from throughout their respective states.
John Williamson, Catfish Farmer of the Year from Alabama, has been in business since 2000, starting with 500 acres of catfish ponds. His operation has now increased to 1,650 acres. He credits his success in recent years to his focus on efficiency, keeping production high and using more electric generators to reduce the demand on fuel. Williamson was chosen by a panel of his peers who lauded him as “a great spokesperson for the industry as a whole.”
“The attitude I’ve taken from the production side is to stay as efficient as possible... by pushing our production levels to the highest level we can obtain,” says Williamson. “We’ve tried to be very proactive and come up with new ideas to stay ahead of the game on efficiency.”
Williamson concedes that prices will have to go up at some point to keep catfish farming profitable, but he feels that U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish will continue to be a popular product because of its taste, as well as the safety and earth-friendly nature of the fish.
In a time when Americans are more and more concerned with the origins of their food, U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish has become one of the safest choices in seafood, because the fish are raised in freshwater ponds and fed a strict diet of wholesome grains.
When asked his thoughts on the future of the catfish industry, Williamson says, “Our industry may struggle for a while, but I think it will eventually stabilize. There will always be a big demand for catfish, especially in the South. As for me, my family will be in the catfish industry... and continue what we are doing, and probably expand.”
Mitt Walker of the Alabama Farmers Federation agrees with Williamson’s assessment of the future of the catfish industry.
“The industry will be here in five years, but it may look different than it does today. Our catfish will always have a place in the seafood market. We have loyal customers who will always demand U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish. They know it’s a good, high-quality product. I think U.S. Farmed-Raised Catfish will always have a home,” says Walker.
Charles Robb of Hot Springs Village was named Arkansas’ Catfish Farmer of the Year. He began catfish farming in 2000 with 207 acres, which has now grown to 500 total acres. He is addressing the problem of rising costs by cutting back on the amount of feed given to the catfish, and he is looking at a new food option that is less expensive, containing more corn and less soybeans. He’s hesitant to make these changes but acknowledges that steps must be taken to continue to operate successfully.
“We are doing what we can to decrease expenses, but my business plan is to grow as many catfish as our operation will produce, and to feed even though catfish feed is at a high cost right now,” says Robb.
Robb is also known as “Catfish Charlie” in his state, appearing on several radio programs to promote U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish with cooking demonstrations, radio commercials and on-air interviews.
“I’m trying to convince our consumers that they need to insist on U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish, and at least around here, the word is getting out,” says Robb.
“I see a positive trend in terms of consumption of our product,” Robb continues. “Ocean productivity has gone down, but seafood is still an important source of protein. So our fish is a natural choice because of its sustainability. People are looking more and more for a healthy source of protein – other than chicken – and catfish is a healthy, high-protein, low-fat source of food.”
Bo Collins, executive director of Catfish Farmers of Arkansas, says, “Charles Robb is a great ambassador to the catfish industry, and we appreciate his tremendous effort to advance our business both inside and outside the state of Arkansas.”
Harris Russell, Mississippi’s Catfish Farmer of the Year, lives in Sunflower, Miss., and farms 1,250 acres of catfish ponds near the town of Moorhead. A former row cropper, Russell decided to try his hand at catfish farming in 1980 and has seen the profitability of the business go up and down. Although he also decries the increase in feed costs, he feels that farmers who are committed to the industry will continue to be successful. His business has grown gradually over the years, which he sees as a key to his success – that is, not expanding his operation too quickly.
“Harris Russell’s career is evidence that catfish farming can be quite profitable for farmers who are willing to commit to the business and work hard. He’s been in this business a long time and has earned the respect of his peers across the state,” says Keith King, president of Catfish Farmers of Mississippi.
Russell is trying to keep production costs down but believes that the price to the consumer will have to increase in order for farmers to stay profitable. He is pleased to be part of the upcoming advertising campaign, saying, “We have such a great product. We need to do all we can to tell people about the benefits of locally grown U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish. Anything I can do to support the industry, I’m all for it.”
While the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish industry is facing its share of economic challenges, it is experiencing success in its efforts to educate the public about the superior nature of U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish when compared to imported catfish. In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration announced broader import controls on Chinese seafood, including catfish, because tests conducted by FDA food safety inspectors had shown some Asian fish were contaminated with chemicals and drugs banned for use in U.S. food.
In July 2008, Mississippi House Bill 728, requiring the state’s restaurants to disclose the country of origin of the catfish they serve, was signed into law. While grocery stores were already federally mandated to label the country of origin of their seafood, restaurants were under no such obligation. This law is expected to influence other states to enact similar legislation requiring restaurants to follow the same guidelines as grocery stores in informing the public about the products they serve.
Longstanding catfish farmers are optimistic about the industry’s future. These farmers believe in the quality of their product and trust that American consumers will embrace it as they learn more about the health benefits, quality assurance and environmental safety of U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish.
The men selected as Catfish Farmers of the Year for 2008 have several things in common – dedication to their families, their communities, their individual businesses and the catfish industry as a whole. They are committed to safe, environmentally friendly farming practices that offer the highest-quality fish available. Catfish farmers were “green” long before the media began touting environmental awareness. These farmers know that being good stewards of the environment is the best way of ensuring sustainable production over many years, and that is certainly something to celebrate during this year’s National Catfish Month.
“It’s important to remind people how much the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish industry matters – both economically and as a stable, sustainable food source,” says TCI president Roger Barlow. “This August, when we are in the grocery store or at the restaurant, we need to remember to support our local farmers by buying locally grown products – and that includes U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish.”