Times for State's Catfish Producers
Auburn, Sept. 13,
2002---Days are long and hot, and stress levels are running high
around the Drury place these days. Catfish farmer Wallace
"Bubba" Drury said there is rarely a moment without worry
when it comes to maintaining his 50 catfish ponds in Hale County.
And summers are the worst.
"This is a very
high-risk type of farming," he said. "And the hotter the
weather is, the worse it gets."
temperatures have been moderately high with several dry periods. The
intense heat causes algae to bloom in ponds and makes the fish
sluggish and slow to eat. Neither situation is good for the catfish
farmer, Drury said.
labor-intensive and extremely risky, catfish farming has climbed its
way to the top of Alabamaís aquaculture industry, generating more
than $90 million each year.
industry, including the production of crawfish, saltwater shrimp and
tilapia, involves more than 500 producers on fish farms spreading
across more than 26,000 acres, said Dr. Jerry Crews, an Alabama
Cooperative Extension System agricultural economist.
About 240 are considered
large-scale operations, he said.
Crews said catfish
farming has increased dramatically in the past twenty years and was
the most profitable commodity in the state, with Alabama producers
bringing in $60-70 million each year.
Hale County leads the
state, housing more than 50 percent of the stateís catfish
farmers, as well as one of the nationís largest catfish processing
Druryís Catfish Farm
sells its catfish to Southern Pride Catfish Company in Greensboro,
Ala., which ships fish all across the United States.
Hale County Extension
Agent Jamey Clary said his countyís rich soil is a natural
attraction for catfish producers.
"Our heavy, clay
prairie soil is good soil to raise fish in for several
reasons," he said. "First, itís cheaper to build ponds
here because the clay soil holds water so well. It allows farmers to
conserve water, so less water is pumped from wells and streams.
Also, this is a really high alkaline soil. The lime in the soil has
almost a medicinal effect on the fish, which tend to have less
disease problems here in the Black Belt."
There are about 150
catfish farmers in Hale County. Until last year, it was by far the
most lucrative product grown in the county in the past 15 years,
Despite the commodityís
success over the past decade, several factors have affected catfish
sales in the last year.
industry has really taken a hit in the last year," Clary said.
"The Vietnamese are shipping in fish that are raised in cages
under floating homes on the Mekong River. They have been packaging
the product as catfish. They use 50-cent-an-hour labor and sell it
here cheaper than our farmers can grow the real thing. So that has
hurt our farmers. The events of Sept. 11 have hurt them, too. Since
then, people just arenít eating out as much as they used to, and
it has really depressed prices. "
Clary added, "The
general economy isnít that good right now, and so people donít
have as much money to eat out anymore. All those things have
seriously hurt the catfish industry and the farmers are really
having a tough time."
Crews said the major
factors affecting the domestic catfish and aquaculture industries
are expected to continue.
"On the downside,
the catfish industry is wrestling with three important issues,"
he said. "First, there should be large supplies of competing
meats, especially chicken. Second, forecasts show the U.S. economy
has slowed down. This translates into decreased away-from-home
eating, which provides strong support for catfish/seafood
The third factor is new
to the industry, Crews said.
imports," he said. "Foreign catfish supplies have been
relatively small until the last couple of years."
The imported products
are mostly frozen fillets and targeted to the food service industry,
he said. In 2000, imports were up to more than 6 percent. Last year,
they had soared to more than 13 percent. That means fewer sales Ė
and subsequently hard times Ė for Alabama producers.
Drury knows firsthand
about the tough times for farmers. Heís seen his own business
suffer, and he knows other farmers who are drying up their ponds and
getting out of the business altogether.
Clary said catfish
farming is a very labor-intensive enterprise, including the close
watch and careful maintenance of the ponds. Even in the best of
times, itís not easy to farm catfish.
"From the first
part of April to the first cold snap, which is usually in October,
farmers never really breathe easy," he said. "During those
warm months, they must constantly check the oxygen levels in their
ponds. Itís a very stressful agricultural enterprise during the
If the oxygen level in a
pond drops below a certain point and control measures aren't taken,
all the fish die. One bad night could wipe out an entire yearís
"The farmers check
the ponds, feed the fish and do maintenance on the paddle wheels,
which aerate the ponds, during the day," Clary said. "Then
they usually hire night checkers to go around and check all the
ponds throughout the night."
While row-crop farmers
may gradually lose their crops to drought, flooding or pests, they
usually have time to try to stop the damage. Catfish farmers may
lose everything in a few hours, Clary said.
question this is a tough business," Drury said. "I donít
think it will ever be as good as it was, but I sure hope it gets
better than it is now."
(Source: Jamey Clary,
Hale County Extension Coordinator, 334-624-8710; Dr. Jerry Crews,
Extension Economist, 334-844-3506)
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