Catfish industry keeps Black Belt region afloat
Story and photos by Morgan Graham
“One of the reasons we have remained viable in the U.S. fish market is because our electrical costs in Alabama remained competitive.”
Many Black Belt farms were in financial deep water in the 1980s when low commodity prices and high input costs struck American agriculture. But the area’s unique black soil and abundant fresh water proved perfect for expansion of an emerging catfish industry.
Like all farming, raising catfish had risks. However, it offered families like Townsend Kyser’s an opportunity to continue farming.
“In the Black Belt region, we can raise catfish more efficiently than anywhere else in the country because of the people, soil and climate,” said Kyser, 41, president of the Catfish Farmers of America. “The economic impact catfish have on Alabama, and especially the Black Belt region, has kept this area afloat for many years.”
Alabama ranks second in the nation for catfish production behind Mississippi. Arkansas rounds out the top-three states.
Catfish is so important to the Black Belt, even the water tower in Kyser’s hometown of Greensboro proudly proclaims it’s the “Catfish Capital of Alabama.”
The catfish industry provides approximately 1,500 jobs for the Black Belt region, Kyser says. Those jobs include two feed mills and two processing plants. A new processing facility prepares catfish for trendy in-home meal delivery companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh.
The Kyser family farm includes Townsend, his father, Bill, and brother Ashley. They have 50 ponds (around 700 acres of water) that produce 5 million pounds of catfish annually. They also raise cattle, timber and hay.
“It is both challenging and rewarding to work with family,” Kyser laughs, “but it works for us. It feels good to know we’re working together producing food for other families. It has an extra special meaning.”
Townsend’s grandfather, the late Joseph Alison Kyser, built four catfish ponds in 1967 to raise fish. He said that’s significant because while other area farm ponds eventually were converted for catfish farming, those were the first in Alabama specifically built for commercial catfish farming — 13 years ahead of the industry boon. Those ponds piqued Bill Kyser’s interest in fish farming, eventually steering him to Auburn University where he received the college’s first undergraduate degree in fisheries.
As catfish farming grew, so did demand for the fish. More ponds were built, and it seemed like the sky was the limit, Kyser says. Fish farming was taking the place of traditional row crop and dairy farms for west Alabama Black Belt counties. The industry evolved to modern processing facilities, improved harvesting techniques, better feed and modern monitoring equipment.
“The industry peaked in the early 2000s, but quickly crashed in 2008 when input costs almost doubled overnight,” he says. “Feed prices nearly doubled, fuel prices skyrocketed, and it was costing more to grow fish than what we were selling them for. That’s also the time when foreign countries began selling more fish in America, representing it to be catfish. The imports were capitalizing on the market demand U.S. farmers had created.”
Several farms stopped producing fish or reduced their water acreage. Today, U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish production is about half what it was in the early 2000s. However, demand for the white, flaky fish is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, much of the increased demand is being met by foreign fish, Kyser says.
“Nationally, catfish production around 2004 was 600 million pounds annually. Today, we’re producing about 325 million pounds,” he says. “One of the reasons we have remained viable in the U.S. fish market is because our electrical costs in Alabama remained competitive.”
To outsiders, catfish farming might seem easy once ponds are filled with water and fish are added. But feeding, monitoring water quality and scouting for disease outbreaks are imperative to success, Kyser says.
Ponds are usually stocked in December with fingerlings, young catfish about 4 to 6 inches long. Fish are fed floating pellets that are 32 percent protein and include corn, soybean meal, vitamins and minerals.
Fish are harvested when they reach between 1 to 2 pounds using nets with holes designed to catch only fish large enough for harvest. The fish are loaded into live wells on trucks for transportation to processing plants. A typical 18-wheeler holds 25,000 pounds of catfish.
The typical growing season for catfish lasts about 18 months, with major growth months being June through September.
Kyser said Black Belt farmers have an advantage over Mississippi farmers because electricity cost significantly less.
“Electricity is the most important resource for catfish farmers during growing season,” he says. “Producers rely on electricity to run aerators, especially at night, to maintain a steady oxygen level in the ponds. Black Warrior Electric Cooperative is a big part of our community. We enjoy working closely with them.”
Alabama Farmers Federation Catfish Division Director Mitt Walker said the catfish industry plays a significant role in the state’s economy. He said about 1,500 Alabamians are directly engaged in catfish production or processing. In addition to Hale County, other top catfish-producing areas include Greene, Dallas and Perry counties.
“Alabama farmers produce 33 percent of all catfish in the U.S. annually with 120 million pounds on 85 farms,” Walker says, quoting national ag statistics. “Our state had over 17,000 water surface acres dedicated to catfish production in 2016.”
Lower electricity costs give farmers advantage
Kyser said his work with Catfish Farmers of America helps educate consumers and lawmakers about catfish production and consumption, plus focuses on lobbying in Washington, D.C. He also works with The Catfish Institute to encourage consumers to purchase fish with the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish logo.
A member of the Alabama Farmers Federation State Catfish Committee, Kyser is a former state Federation Young Farmers committee chairman. He also served as American Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers and Ranchers chairman.
Kyser said his involvement with those organizations helped him become a better spokesman. He’s routinely interviewed by national media outlets as a representative for the catfish industry and is a regular on National Public Radio’s Marketplace hosted by Kai Ryssdal.
The focus of his interviews? It might be the weather, how imports have driven down the price of U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish or how government regulations are placing burdensome regulations on farmers. But Kyser said he never misses an opportunity to emphasize the importance of buying U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish.
“It doesn’t matter where you buy your fish, as long as you buy U.S. Farm-Raised,” Kyser says. “Eventually, you’ll be eating catfish my neighbor or I raised.”
Kyser said most catfish is consumed in restaurants, and it’s most frequently served fried. However, he encourages consumers to try different ways to eat catfish. While he, wife Kelly and their three children love fried catfish, Kyser’s personal favorites are grilled, blackened and Catfish Allison.ν
For a variety of catfish recipes, visit uscatfish.com.
Other websites with information on catfish and the industry:
• The Catfish Institute – uscatfish.com
• Catfish Farmers of America – catfishfarmersofamerica.com
• Alabama Catfish Producers – alfafarmers.org/programs/divisions/commodities/catfish/
• Catfish Video – youtu.be/shfK85gMpmU
Caribbean jerk catfish with black bean salad
Courtesy of USCatfish.com
Start-to-finish: 30 minutes
For the dressing
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- 4 tablespoons lime juice and lime zest
- 1/4 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 dashes hot sauce
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the salad
- 1 can whole kernel corn, drained
- 1 orange bell pepper, diced
- 1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
- 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 avocado, halved, pitted and diced in large pieces
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro or Italian parsley, chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the fish
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons vinegar
- 1 tablespoon Caribbean or Jamaican Jerk seasoning
- 4 U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets
- Spring mix lettuce blend
For the dressing, mix garlic, lime juice and zest, chili powder, cumin and hot sauce. Whisk in olive oil until blended.
For the Black Bean Salad, mix all salad ingredients together. Combine with dressing and coat evenly. Salt and pepper to taste.
For the fish, heat grill or broiler. Combine oil, vinegar and seasoning. Brush fillets with marinade. Place fillets on grill or under broiler, skin side up, and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Flip and cook 2 to 3 more minutes. Serve over spring mix lettuce blend with Black Bean Salad.