Fish Farmer

Published 6:51 pm Saturday, April 24, 2010

By Dennis Palmer

Selma Times-Journal

Browns – As a little boy growing up on his family’s farm, Will Pearce says he didn’t really have an appreciation for what it meant to be a farmer. He’d watch his father, David Pearce, Sr., spend every day, and many nights, tending to the farm’s catfish ponds. The work was all consuming, dirty and hard, and left little time for anything else.

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As Will grew older, life on the farm in this small community west of Selma became an “inconvenience” to him and his brother David, Jr.

“Being 30 miles from town it was always hard trying to hook up with friends,” he said smiling, while sitting on a well used couch in the office of Pearce Catfish Farm.

But as time passed it became more evident that Will Pearce, who graduated from Auburn University in 1996 with a degree in agriculture economics, would follow in his father’s footsteps and, along with his brother David, would take over the farm.

“My mother’s family has farmed this land for five generations,” Will said. “The older I get the more I appreciate it. It’s long hours and weekends, but it’s just the nature of the business.”

While tough and time consuming, the “business,” as Pearce calls it, has been good to the family, and they’ve been good to the catfish industry, too. Depending on who you talk to, Pearce Catfish Farm rivals some of the largest catfish growers in Alabama, which along with Mississippi and Arkansas lead the nation in catfish production.

Through their business savvy and hard work, the Pearces have become leaders and innovators in the catfish industry. So much so that Will Pearce was recently named Alabama Catfish Farmer of the Year by the Alabama Catfish Producers.

Pearce was honored with the distinction by a group of his peers and represented Alabama catfish producers at the International Boston (Mass.) Seafood Show, one of the largest food shows in the country.

Pearce said he was surprised and humbled to receive the award, but he’s quick to heap praise on the other folks who work alongside him, who he says have allowed him to get more involved in the catfish industry.

“I look at this award as a farm award rather than an individual award because of the people we have working here,” he said. “Being one of the younger people in the industry I knew I needed to get involved and learn about what was going on. Luckily I’ve been able to do that because of the people we have working here.”

Townsend Kyser, president of the state association and who farms about 750 acres of catfish ponds on property between Greensboro and Newbern, said Will Pearce is “a good experienced farmer and is helping lead our industry in the right direction.”

“Most people don’t understand what it means to be a catfish farmer,” Kyser said while driving around his ponds talking on his telephone. “You have to be dedicated to make it work and be willing to try different things and roll with the punches. Everybody would be a lot better off if they grew up on a farm like they did 50 years ago.”

The Farming Life

Will Pearce spends almost every day (and many nights) tending to the farm’s 121 catfish ponds that span 1,374 acres. It’s a far cry from the early days when Will’s grandfather ran a dairy farm and only tended five ponds. Back then, folks drove from miles around to the family’s “fish out ponds” to drop their line in the calm water in hopes of reeling in their dinner.

It was the mid-70s and the catfish craze hadn’t really hit, but Pearce, Sr. saw the potential in what many folks back then thought were “trash fish.”

“We milked cows for seven years while growing catfish and built our ponds up,” Pearce, Sr. said while dining on a lunch of Alabama grown fried catfish and hushpuppies at the Faunsdale Bar & Grill, noting that he’s learned many lessons along the way. “We bought into Country Fresh Catfish processing in 1981. It went broke in ’83. It was the best education I ever got. It was expensive.”

Pearce, Sr. said a tipping point came in 1983 when catfish consumption in the US doubled. In 1986 The Catfish Institute was formed and the boon years hit.

“About that time the health kick kicked in and people began eating more fish, and (catfish) is one of the only species that can be supplied year-round,” he said.

“2003 was (the industry’s) biggest year we had with 700 million pounds. But since then we’ve been shrinking. I think we’ll do around 400 million pounds this year.”

Back on the farm, Will Pearce and Derry Bone, who helps the Pearces run their day-to-day operations, drive around the farm’s ponds staring at the rippled water like expectant mothers. After a colder than expected winter, it’s almost time for the fish to start growing.

“A fish’s metabolism goes up and down with the weather,” Bone said. “When it gets cold, they lay dormant. Eighty degree water is the threshold to maximize production and 82 degrees is the optimum to get your best conversion.”

Bone said the unusually cold winter and spring has led to an 80 percent drop in production, something he said will be difficult, if not impossible, to make up as the weather warms.

The Pearces buy catfish fingerlings from Mississippi, which are delivered to the farm in 18-wheeler trucks with aerated tanks. Like most anything that’s grown, not all the fingerlings make it to harvest. Will Pearce estimates about 50 percent are lost to the elements and predators, such as the many species of birds that call the farm home.

The day starts early for Bone, rising at 4 a.m. to feed the fish. He says the conversion rates (the amount a fish eats vs. the weight they gain) are vital to the fish’s growth. The fish are harvested using a huge net called a seine.

“Our goal is to seine four days a week, and we usually load 75,000 pounds per day when we seine,” Bone said, noting that Heartland Catfish in Greensboro processes the fish that are then sent mainly to restaurants.

As the weather warms, the fish begin to move around more and get hungrier. Oxygen levels are kept stable through a series of computer driven aerators that look like miniature paddle wheels. Bone says he can monitor oxygen levels and other data by way of computer and make adjustments when needed.

“The fish breathe more in hot weather because their metabolism is higher,” Bone said, noting that the farm’s power bill often tops $100,000 in the summer months. “We lost power one summer for about four or five hours and it cost us half a million pounds (of fish) worth about $350,000.”

Catfish Farming’s Future

Pearce, Sr. said inferior fish imported from foreign countries such as Vietnam and China has caused American grown catfish sales to drop.

“We know our product is safe, but with their fish you never know what you’re going to get,” he said. “They’ve found illegal antibiotics and chemicals in their fish and if you saw some of the rivers they get those fish from you’d be amazed at how dirty they are. It’s really a food safety issue. In the focus groups we’ve had 96 percent of people prefer an American product. The problem is the people who consume (catfish) don’t have an option but the people that buy it do.”

Pearce Sr., who was president of the Catfish Farmers of America in 1980, said Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks has been working to try to stop illegal imports and that the federal government passed a truth in labeling law, but excluded restaurants, which he said is where 70 percent of the processed fish are consumed.

“The farmer has to look at every aspect to survive in today’s world of catfish farming,” said Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish Institute, which was formed by a group of catfish farmers and feed manufacturers to promote the health and taste benefits of U.S. farm-raised catfish to home and restaurant chefs. “We have a great deal of import pressure and a recession that has affected credit for our farmers. We’ve had record high grain prices and our farmers have had to be in survival mode.”

One of the biggest expenses farmers have is their feed, which is why the Pearces helped form a feed mill cooperative in Uniontown in 1999. It started with 13 farmers who invested $6.2 million to build it and has since grown to 36 members with room for more. Last year the mill produced and sold about 120,000 tons of feed for the cooperative’s members and non-members.

“This has been the best thing to happen to the catfish industry,” said Pearce Sr., noting that it has reduced feed expense for growers while producing higher conversion rates for their fish.

Pearce Sr. said pond yields have grown significantly over the years, especially since his boys have gotten involved in running the farm with Bone’s help.

“We used to have 6,000 pounds per acre now we’re averaging 10,000 pounds,” he said.

While there’s been a dip in production due to feed prices soaring, imports flooding the market, a national recession causing fewer people to dine out, and the cost to power the farm’s hundreds of aerators moving higher, Barlow is optimistic that the industry will not only survive, but thrive, but only for the farmers who embrace change.

“Hybrid catfish is coming on the scene very strong,” he said, also noting that a new type of gourmet catfish called Delacata is about to hit the market. Delacata is a premium catfish with a flavor and texture similar to that of grouper, halibut, cod and snapper. It is much thicker than traditional catfish, and is grown, processed and marketed differently. “There is a great deal of things happening and the farmer has to adapt to find what works for their operation,” he said.