Alabama’s catfish industry continues to grow

An aerial view of an Alabama catfish farm. (ag.auburn.edu photo)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Catfish farmers in Alabama saw their annual sales increase to $120 million in 2016, marking the third consecutive year of growth in that industry.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it was state farmers’ best year since sales reached $132 million in 2011. It also represents a 20 percent improvement over sales in 2013, when sales barely broke $100 million.

Wallace “Bubba” Drury, who owns and operates his own catfish farm near Greensboro in Hale County, said the instability is connected to imported fish flooding the U.S. market. He said whitefish gets imported primarily from Vietnam and is sold at prices that local producers can’t compete with.

“These foreign fish, they affected our sales because they were so much cheaper than our product,” Drury said. “They don’t have any of the regulations that we do, so they were able to sell a cheaper product here, but consumers don’t have a clue what they’re eating without those regulations.”

Drury, who was named the Catfish Farmer of the Year by the Alabama Farmers Federation last April, said the market is evening out and farmers are making a profit again as consumers begin to realize the that the American fish is simply a superior product.

“As consumers learned what they were getting with that foreign fish, they backed off and went to our product again,” he said. “The quality is here is just so much better. We control everything that goes in and comes out, we have good ponds with good water quality and we’re inspected by the USDA.”

In West Alabama, the clay soil is conducive to catfish ponds, while the soil isn’t suited to traditional crops, such as corn. In an area with some of Alabama’s poorest counties, catfish farms provide a source of jobs as well as pride. Alabama catfish farms are concentrated in west and central Alabama, employing 6,000 people statewide and generating an annual economic impact of more than $158 million to the state, according to Alabama Catfish Producers, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation.

The health of the industry in Alabama is also fairly indicative of its status nationwide. According to the USDA data, catfish sales in the U.S. totaled $386 million last year. Roughly a third that came from farmers in the Yellowhammer State.

Townsend Kyser and his family own a catfish farm in Hale County they’ve operated for 50 years now. He said the area can’t be beat when it comes to growing catfish.

“The best places in the world to raise catfish are in west Alabama and in the Mississippi delta region,” Kyser said. “We have great soil, a good climate and good people who know how to raise them. It’s also beneficial for west Alabama, a big economic engine that provides a lot of jobs in areas that are struggling otherwise. We in the fish business are proud of that.”

Kyser is the president of the Catfish Farmers of America, a group that he said acts as the industry’s eyes and ears in Washington, D.C., and navigates the federal government’s ever-changing policies. He said the CFA also promotes the quality of U.S. catfish and is working to see the same standards applied to both foreign and domestic products.

“We use top ingredients to provide a great, healthy product and we’re proud of it,” Kyser said. “We’re so sure of our product that we asked the government to inspect it strenuously, but to also inspect other products as strenuously as they do ours.”

Kyser and Drury both said they expect consumer confidence in U.S. fish to grow and slowly brace up the industry, which Kyser said has been on uncertain ground for the last 20 years.

“I’m optimistic. We seem to have stabilized and are seeing just a bit profit again,” Kyser said. “I hope that slow growth continues because there hasn’t been any in years. I didn’t know if it was ever going to happen again.”

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