Catfish farmers need help

Published 7:42 pm Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced it’ll purchase up to $5 million worth of domestic farm-raised catfish for school lunches and other programs.

That’s welcomed news to the 40-year-old catfish industry that’s seen better times.

In 2007, catfish growers in the United States had sales of $445 million, down about 8 percent from the previous year, according to the USDA.

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Everyone is pretty much aware of the increased costs in operation costs for farmers, even aquaculture takes a significant amount of capital for catfish feed and fuel. A good many farmers — about a third — have opted to cut back on their production.

Those cutbacks hurt us here in Alabama, considering that about 95 percent of the catfish raised in the nation comes from farms in this state, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Prior to the increases in feed and fuel, U.S. catfish farmers had another fight on their hands, and it came from Asia.

Catfish farmers have had to battle the emergence of Pangasius from Vietnam. Paul Greenberg, a W.K. Kellogg Foundation food-and-society policy fellow, recently traced that war and its effects in an article in the New York Times, “A Catfish by Any Other Name.”

It’s likely you’ve had some of this fish from Asia. At one time, the Pangasius was labeled as catfish, just as the channel cat that came from Greensboro and other places in the Alabama Black Belt. Now, because of the attention, folks call the Pangasius, fish.

Back about eight to 10 years ago, Pangasius, or tra, as the Vietnamese call it, lay side-by-side with American raised catfish in the grocery store. The Vietnamese fish was cheaper because it takes less space to raise, the labor is cheaper and the fish grow faster in Vietnam’s climate. Plus, at the time Pangasius was introduced, the government didn’t require labels that designated the country where the food originated. People didn’t know they were eating foreign fish.

Catfish producers went to Washington, sought and received an anti-dumping law that cut back on the Vietnamese fish rolling into the country. Ironically, Greenberg points out, John McCain stood against American catfish farmers and favored the Vietnamese brand, castigating what McCain called, “large, wealthy agribusinesses,” which the senior senator from Arizona said fought the battle.

Tell that to the Alabama Catfish Producers who’ve sweated out an economic war with Vietnam, only to turn around and have to deal with the Chinese — a main concern of domestic catfish producers now.

Not long ago, the U.S. turned back 52 shipments of Chinese catfish because they tested positive from chemicals and other ingredients banned by the U.S.

And, again, the farmers have gone to Washington to receive regulations for foreign producers as stringent as those for American producers.

So, while hard times have fallen on catfish farmers in this region, there’s hope. As farmers and researchers work together to develop different crosses that will please palates and prove more profitable to the producer. Now with the added news that the USDA will help find a few markets for the farmer, perhaps those who have remained in the business will continue to do so.

Meanwhile, we all can help by ensuring we purchase American farm-raised catfish.