Catfish Farmers Adjust to New Rules, Farmweek, Nov. 11, 2016

Catfish Farmers Adjust to New Rules, Farmweek, Nov. 11, 2016


ACCORDING TO THE U-S-D-A, CATFISH PRODUCTION LEADS THE PACK WHEN IT COMES TO U-S AQUACULTURE. WHILE OFTEN A FRIED FOOD HEADLINER, CATFISH PROMOTERS HAVE BEEN TOUTING THE HEALTHIER, GRILLED OPTIONS. IN ADDITION…DOMESTI C GROWERS HAVE BEEN STRENGTHENING THEIR MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR OPERATION WHILE FIGHTING FOREIGN COMPETITION AND ADJUSTING TO NEW INSPECTION REGIMES. [CATFISH IMPORTS PKG] —PKG— The day for Battle Fish Farms harvest crew starts early. They’ve been waiting 18 months for this pond of catfish to be ready. Bill Battle a native of Tunica, Mississippi, and owner of Battle Fish Farms, has raised catfish since he can remember. “My first recollection of fish farming was riding in the back of a car watching the little sac fry we had in a bag to bring to the first pond we ever built. I guess that was about 1969 or 70. From there went on to run the hatcheries and worked on a fish farm every holiday and summer vacation. Everybody else went to Florida and I went to the fish farm.” Battle, a Catfish Farmers of America board member, says raising and processing fish at his operation takes up every one of the 24 hours available in a day and requires the help of some 150 employees. Britton Hatcher is the Mississippi Farm Bureau’s Aquaculture commodity adviser. “Catfish in the wild are bottom feeding fish, but the way I try to explain catfish in a farm raised setting, it’s just like cattle. Grass-fed beef has a different taste than does feed lot. Catfish are the same. In the wild they’re going to be a little bit different. If you’ve ever watched a catfish being fed they go out there and throw feed on the water and our fish are just churning all along the top they’re not at the bottom.” Battle Fish Farms’ 100 ponds produce nearly 10 million pounds of fish every year. When the catfish are ready, a crew harvests the bounty with nets that allow the smaller fish to swim through, letting them grow to a size that turns a profit. Pride of the Pond, Battle’s processing facility, opened in the early 1980’s and runs four days per week depending on demand and the number of fish harvested in nets or purchased from other producers. U.S. farm raised catfish production soared in the 70s topping out in the early 2000s. But after foreign imports from trading partners like Vietnam and China, higher production costs, and a weak domestic economy contributed to total catfish pond acreage falling nearly 65 percent. Today, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas account for 90 percent of all U.S. production which tipped the scales at 315 million pounds in 2015 – nearly a third of total domestic consumption. Over the past four and a half decades, producers have encountered many changes. Battle and the nearly 185 other catfish producers, concentrated in southern states, are facing some of their greatest challenges in the history of the industry. “My father was really involved in the industry and he came home one day and said look, the Malachite that you’re using, you got to get rid of it. If the FDA or whoever finds it on the farm they’ll shut us down. You know it still mystifies me why other countries can use all those banned items and send the fish in here for us to eat and for us to feed our children you know if they catch me using it in this country it’s doomsday for me. And I don’t want to use it I mean I want product that’s good for me and good for my kids I probably eat more catfish than anybody.” Prior to March 2016, catfish imports and domestic production were inspected and monitored by the Food and Drug Administration. Years of lobbying in Congress resulted in catfish being classified as a “meat” in the 2008 Farm Bill. After nearly eight years, inspection authority passed to USDA’s, Food Safety and Inspection Service. Under the newly implemented program, 100 percent of catfish are inspected and regulated where previously only two percent of all imported catfish and catfish-like product were inspected. After only four months of enforcement, Senate Republicans voted to end the inspection process handled by FSIS and return regulation to the FDA. Several catfish industry members went to Washington D.C. just days before Congress recessed in August to rally U.S. House members to vote down the resolution. However, the legislation never made it to the floor. Hatcher, like many others, emphasizes the issue is about food safety and industry image. “A fear I have one batch comes in gets a lot of people sick they’re going to paint this industry with a broad brush nobody’s gonna wanna eat catfish again because they’re going to say that catfish made me sick when they don’t understand that this was from China or Vietnam or wherever it comes from and this is U.S. Farm Raised catfish.” Many of those wishing to return inspection to the FDA say this is a political agenda brought forth by a small group of southern catfish industry members rather than a food safety issue. The National Fisheries Institute, a non-profit organization made up of importers, exporters, producers, processors, and restaurants, among others, voiced opposition to the change in procedure and support lawmakers who want the mandate repealed. “The reality is the folks who will be hurt the most by this in the long- run are U.S. Ag exports because what’s likely to happen is if this program goes forward there will be a WTO lawsuit from Vietnam or from China and the U.S. will lose that lawsuit. And when they do lose that lawsuit there will be retaliatory tariffs placed on U.S. ag exports and the reason that U.S. ag exports will be targeted is that we don’t export any catfish. Not a single whisker of catfish is exported from this country, so there is nothing in the catfish realm to retaliate against. So the real losers here are going to be corn, beef, soy, cotton, those type of exports.” As the legislation wrangling continues in Congress, Battle, like other producers know they will continue to face opposition from those in Washington, and foreign competition. “And I told someone not long ago, old boy trying to raise catfish in Mississippi never thought he’d be, they’d need him to go to Washington to knock on doors and house of Congress. I mean it takes a lot to put fish in the box these days. It really does. [CATFISH IMPORTS TAG] (—2SHOT— —TROY— AND HERE’S A FEW MORE CATFISH STATS. THIS IS DATA FROM 20-15 COURTESY OF MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY. FOR ANYONE WHO DOESN’T KNOW, MISSISSIPPI IS THE NUMBER ONE STATE WHEN IT COMES TO CATFISH PRODUCTION. LEFLORE COUNTY IN THE NORTHWEST PART OF THE STATE WAS THE TOP PRODUCING COUNTY LAST YEAR. —LEIGHTON— ACCORDING TO THIS DATA…185 CATFISH OPERATIONS IN THE STATE…ALONG WITH 40,000 ACRES OF PRODUCTION. THAT EQUATES TO A PRODUCTION VALUE OF 185 MILLION DOLLARS. —TROY—- OK, GREAT! NOW I’M HUNGRY. [NEXT WEEK TEASE] (—2SHOT AT MONITOR— —TROY—

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