Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on November 22, 1999. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Catfish Production Swims Into Hills
By Rebekah Ray
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- For years the Mississippi Delta has been known for its production of both cotton and farm-raised catfish, but now the fish also swim in East Mississippi ponds as producers are realizing its economic potential.
No longer considered just Southern fare, catfish is the fifth most popular fish in America. In 1998, it was one of the top-five agricultural commodities in Mississippi and had a value-added production of more than $306 billion, up 15 percent from 1997.
For the last 10 years, production of this valuable commodity has taken hold in several counties in East Mississippi's Blackland Prairie, an arc-shaped band of fertile rolling hills that curves from Tupelo to Columbus to Macon and into western Alabama. Mississippi catfish aquaculture now flows through Monroe, Chickasaw, Clay, Lowndes, Noxubee and Kemper counties.
"The development of the catfish industry in East Mississippi is really exciting. Production there has evolved so quickly that its growth is possibly one of the fastest in the country, and East Mississippi producers are very excited about its potential," said fisheries biologist Ed Robinson, who is coordinator of the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Stoneville.
The establishment of the National Warmwater Aquaculture Center at the Delta Research and Extension Center in 1998 validated Mississippi's role as a major producer of farm-raised catfish. The center is a cooperative effort of the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and MSU's Extension Service.
To address the distinct problems of Black Belt catfish producers, MAFES established the Eastern Unit of the NWAC in the summer of 1999 on MSU's South Farm. Additionally, the MAFES Black Belt Branch Experiment Station in Brooksville provides area catfish producers with valuable information by housing an aquaculture Extension specialist. Catfish producers in eastern Mississippi also benefit from close proximity to MSU's College of Veterinary Medicine for diagnostic services.
Mississippi's 420 catfish farms produce 65 percent of the nation's catfish. Of the nation's 170,000 acres of catfish production ponds, Mississippi has 100,000 acres, with 10,000 acres located in eastern Mississippi.
"One reason east Mississippi catfish production has grown so quickly is the already-existing infrastructure in the state," said John Hargreaves, MAFES aquaculture researcher.
Catfish production began in the Mississippi Delta 30 years ago when cotton prices dropped and farmers began looking for other economically viable uses for their lands. In the late 1980s, eastern Mississippi producers faced an agricultural crisis and began diversifying their crop production. The success of catfish production in both the Mississippi Delta and in western Alabama lured them into the industry.
Both the Delta and the Hills use similar production techniques, but several characteristics are helping East Mississippi producers acclimate their land to catfish aquaculture: soil content, topography and pond conditions.
In the Blackland Prairie, catfish may be one of several commodities produced by a farmer. The producers may farm catfish full-time, produce row crops with catfish, or work full time at other jobs and farm in their off hours. Eastern Mississippi catfish farms average 60 acres and are family-owned and operated. Delta catfish are grown on larger farms that average 200 to 250 acres. Despite regional differences, catfish production is contributing greatly to local economies.
"The industry has led to a lot of side businesses in the state. Everything for catfish production from beginning to the end is done within Mississippi. Producers can purchase fingerlings, feed and other supplies such as aerators, and then have their fish processed in Mississippi," Robinson said. "Right now, catfish is a good commodity, because feed prices are good and fish prices are high."
Mississippi has 14 processing plants, with four in the Blackland Prairie.
"Having local processing plants has helped greatly with the industry's development in east Mississippi since they process primarily east Mississippi catfish and are conveniently located," said Jeff Terhune, MAFES fisheries biologist.
Catfish producers in the Delta and Blackland Prairie face many problems unique to their respective regions, but they also share many of the same problems, Hargreaves said.
"Regardless of location, producers generally have problems with diseases, off-flavor, bird depredation, soil differences and pond configurations," Hargreaves said.
Contact: Ed Robinson, (662) 686-9311