Reinventing process and product is crucial to domestic catfish farming

Once a booming business, catfish farming has dwindled since the influx of imported seafood. Vernon Hiebert and other aquaculture professionals are having to reinvent the business to remain viable.

Fishing for Marketshare As imports take up a larger market share, catfish farmers have been forced to innovate or jump ship By Tabitha Yang Originally published in the Oct/Nov 2010 issue of 850 Magazine

When Vernon Hiebert got into the catfish farming business more than a decade ago, he never dreamed he would one day be cleaning his own fish and selling them directly to local customers. The Walnut Hill farmer got into the business as the market for American-grown catfish was taking off, and he was raising thousands of pounds of catfish to sell to the local fish processing plant. He had constructed five catfish ponds and was receiving 75 cents per fish from the plant. At the time, the price of catfish feed was only $200 per ton.

“Back then, it was pretty well profitable,” he recalled. “(But) right now, the feed’s $400 a ton, and we’re still getting 75 cents for a fish.”

Libby Johnson, Escambia County’s agriculture extension agent, says one of the reasons the feed price has doubled is because the price of soybeans has gone up, and soybeans are one of the key ingredients in the feed. On top of that, foreign exports have taken off, and fish processing plants are now importing fish from China, Vietnam and other countries. Those countries are able to produce the fish at a lower cost, which means bigger profit margins for the processing plants. But it’s bad news for American catfish farmers who have seen a plummeting demand for their products.

Catfish Farming Past Its Heyday

About six years ago, the Walnut Hill area in northern Escambia County had about 2,000 acres of ponds where a number of farmers were growing catfish. But the combination of higher feed prices and cheap imported fish has been lethal for most of those farms. According to Hiebert, the only farmers who remain are himself, John Loewen and Steve Hiebert.

“The reason I stayed in it is because I started marketing my own product,” Vernon Hiebert said. “I sell right to the local public right here, and I’m getting away from the processing plant.”

By skipping the catfish processing plant, which essentially serves as a middleman between the farmers and grocery stores, Hiebert is able to make a bigger profit. He sells whole catfish for $1.55 per pound, or $1.85 per pound if you want him to clean it for you. Hiebert also has devised a system for “purging” the fish, putting them in a tank of filtered water for three days to rid them of any “off” flavors they might have acquired from being in an outdoor pond with thousands of other fish.

“Catfish is notorious for off flavor,” he said. “You come out here and get a fish out of each one of my ponds, and each one’s going to taste different. And what changes your taste is your algae bloom.”

Dan Dobbins, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said things work similarly in the wild — a catfish caught in a river may taste different from one caught in a neighboring lake.

“Catfish are opportunistic. They basically take what they can get,” he said. “Wild fish, you don’t know what they’re eating. And that can have an impact on how they would taste.”

Purging farmed catfish in a tank of filtered water ensures a good-tasting fish that’s perfect for frying, grilling or serving blackened. So far, Hiebert’s strategy seems to have worked well.

“I get people who come and tell me, ‘I hope you never go out of business, because this is where I want to get my catfish,’” he said proudly.

Most of the farmers who haven’t changed their marketing strategies have gone out of business. Loewen, the other main catfish farmer in Walnut Hill, said that many of the men who had been raising catfish — and growing crops such as corn and soybeans on the side to make ends meet — ended up abandoning the business and moving away or taking other jobs.

“One man is doing carpenter work. Another moved to Kansas, he’s doing painting. They just found other kinds of work,” Loewen said.

With the tough market, Loewen hasn’t had an easy time of it the past few years. He said he has stayed in the business this long out of sheer “bullheadedness.”

“Farmers are optimists, I guess,” he said. “They keep thinking, ‘Well, next year will be better.’”

But Loewen said he’s just about ready to hang up his hat and call it quits. He plans to farm for another year or so and then retire. Learning how to raise the fish and send them to the plant took education and perseverance. Loewen, Hiebert and other catfish farmers had to learn how to keep their catfish ponds at the right oxygen levels, keep the pond water at a pH of 7, and fend off the algae and bacteria that could kill their entire stock of fish.

Aerators keep the oxygen levels in the ponds at around 3 or 4 parts per million. If oxygen levels get too low, the fish will die. So the farmers have a special computerized system that measures the oxygen levels in the water. When the levels get too low, they turn on their aerators, special machines that add oxygen to the water.

Nitrite and ammonia levels in the pond also need to be constantly monitored. Keeping a balance ensures that the fish will stay healthy. A small amount of copper sulphate is often added to the water to prevent too much algae from growing and then dying in the pond. An algae die-off causes ammonia levels to go up, which can be deadly for the fish.

Even with keeping close tabs on the water temperature, chemicals, algae and bacteria, there still are times when the fish end up dying off. Loewen said he has had to take three of his 11 ponds out of production, because earlier this year he had a problem with the system controlling his aerators. The fish weren’t getting enough oxygen. About a 10-percent loss of the total number of one’s fish is an industry standard.

Regulating the Industry

The amount of chemicals that farmers can add to their ponds to control algae and bacteria growth must adhere to state guidelines, said retired catfish farmer George Carpenter, former president of the now-defunct Northwest Florida Catfish Association. Carpenter said that when catfish farming got started in Florida about 15 years ago, the state convened a group of professors, doctors and other experts who drew up best-management-practice documents to regulate the farmers’ activities. The purpose was to make sure farmers did not expose their fish to chemicals that would be dangerous to humans if ingested.

Carpenter said the farmers are required to keep careful records of the chemicals they add to the ponds, recording what types along with the frequency and amounts used. Farms undergo inspections by state inspectors twice a year to make sure they are complying with state standards.

He confided that he is personally wary of eating fish imported from overseas, because other countries’ farming regulations are not as stringent, and foreign farmers sometimes use dangerous chemicals on their fish in order to raise them more cheaply.

“The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) says they do a check (on the fish),” he said. “They do, but they do not have the personnel to cover all of it. A lot of times, we would find out that some of these chemicals were in the fish that really shouldn’t be consumed by the general public.”

Carpenter said he has written to the USDA before to urge it to take more stringent precautions to make sure imported fish are safe to eat. Nevertheless, he has yet to see any steps taken to tighten controls on imported foods, and the United States continues to import inexpensive fish raised overseas.

Looking to the Present (and Future)

In the meantime, American farmers like Hiebert are doing what they can to stay in business by marketing their fish directly to the public.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has helped his business a little, in that a few of his customers have said they were coming to him because they didn’t want to eat fish caught in the Gulf waters. But Hiebert said he hasn’t seen that the spill has had any effect on the price the fish processing plant is willing to pay. Mostly, he’s trying to make ends meet by concentrating on his direct-to-consumer sales and doing more marketing.

“ did a story or two online for me,” he said, mentioning that he also has done some television and newspaper advertising. “And then word-of-mouth. Once people try (the fish) and eat them, they tell their friends.”

Farmers have conflicting opinions as to whether they think the catfish market in Florida will ever recover.

“As far as I’m concerned, the catfish industry in Florida is coming to an end, because of competition,” Loewen said.

But Carpenter, when asked whether he thinks the Florida catfish business will recover, says confidently, “Oh yeah, it has to.” Nevertheless, “we don’t know how long this crisis is going to be.”