Costs crippling catfish industry

MOORHEAD, Miss. — Rick Moyer gazes at the sun-charred bottom of the pond next to his 600-acre catfish farm and shakes his head. Another farmer scrambling to stay solvent has drained the pond and will till it for row crops.

With soaring prices for just about everything needed to raise their fish, including fuel and feed, catfish farmers are anxious. About 95 percent of the nation's catfish comes from Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, and farmers in all those states are suffering.

Moyer's farm, down a gravel road off U.S. 82 in Sunflower County, employs four full-time workers and five seasonal ones. Farms just like his have helped support 10,000 jobs across the Delta, but lately it's been tough.

Farmers are getting 80 cents a pound for fish that sell whole for $3.27 to $3.99 a pound in grocery stores, but production costs run as much as 90 cents, Wade said. One processor, Consolidated Catfish in Isola, Miss., already has laid off 50 of its 550 workers and plans more, owner Dickie Stevens said.

Moyer spent $500,000 on feed last year. He'll spend almost twice as much this year as the price of feed has gone from $225 to $400 a ton.

Catfish feed is made of soybeans, corn and wheat — commodities at record high prices, and the price is pushing farmers out.

Two of Moyer's longtime catfish fingerling customers are no longer in the business. To survive, Moyer plans to reduce his production next year and continue to sell the tiny fish left over.

”It's my only livelihood,“ said Moyer, 46, who has farmed in the expansive Delta since 1985. ”So as long I can, I'm going to try to make it.“

U.S. catfish growers, in sometimes bitter competition with catfish raised in Asia, had sales of $445 million in 2007, down 8 percent from the previous year, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show.

The farming acreage also dropped by 6 percent. Production peaked in 2003 at 660 million pounds but has been decreasing since, said Roger Barlow of the trade group, Catfish Farmers of America.

Consumers might not feel the effect of the catfish decline for a while because retailers have a choice between U.S. and Asian catfish, and they usually go with the cheaper of the two, said Terry Hanson, an aquaculture economist with Mississippi State University.

Still, the cost of a catfish entree will have to catch up to the production cost at some point, Hanson said.

”It's got to increase the price at the consumer level at some point,“ Hanson said.