INDIANOLA — The world’s largest catfish processing plant is about to get even bigger.
Thanks to a $9.75-million USDA Rural Development loan, Indianola-based Delta Pride Catfish Inc. plans to improve the plant’s work environment, enhance product quality and lower overall processing costs.
“This financing is the key to moving Delta Pride to the next level of operations,” said Bill Allen, president and CEO of Delta Pride. “It would not have been possible without the strong support of our state USDA Rural Development office and our congressional delegation, especially Sen. Cochran and his staff.”
Nick Walters, USDA Rural Development state director for Mississippi, said, “This project is an example of what we are about at USDA Rural Development — job retention as well as business expansion. We have every confidence in the management team at Delta Pride and are proud to be a part of what they are doing and the impact they have on the Mississippi Delta.”
Renovation and expansion of Delta Pride’s Indianola facility began soon after the loan was approved and should be completed in early 2002. During the construction, plant operations will not be interrupted, Allen said.
“With the upgrades, we’ll be able to process catfish faster and more efficiently while maintaining cooler temperatures throughout processing,” Allen said. “This will result in an even further improvement to our excellent product quality, along with an enhanced shelf life for ice-packed and individually quick-frozen products.”
Modernization of the entire process, from live fish entering the plant to packaged products loaded onto delivery trucks, will incorporate a new generation of mechanical de-heading and filleting machines, ergonomically-improved trim tables, new spiral freezer technology and new chilling and grading systems throughout the plant.
“Catfish processing is a higher-tech operation than people might think,” Allen said. “Many of the processes require computer applications and laser and vision technology.”
When complete, the facility will be the most technologically advanced catfish processing plant in the country and the first to totally separate the slaughter process from secondary and further processing functions.
“The more cost-effective process will put us in a more competitive position,” he added.
When Allen joined Delta Pride in 1998, the farmer-owned cooperative — its 111 members farm approximately 60,000 acres of catfish ponds and produce more than 200 million pounds of catfish annually — had four processing facilities. But it had also been operating for a number of years with losses and paybacks each year from its former shareholders to cover those losses, prompting some shareholders to withdraw their support.
Since 1998, Delta Pride has streamlined its operations to make the company more efficient and profitable.
“Delta Pride grew through expansions and acquisitions of smaller companies in the 1980s,” Allen said. “Factories bought from competitors did not lead to a smooth processing flow or an efficient operation. We’re in the mode now of decentralizing with smaller units and more centralized management. For now, we’ll continue to operate two plants in Sunflower County. The second plant is a further processing plant where we want to do breading and frying. Longer term, we’d look to consolidate that operation within the primary Indianola facility. But the purpose of this loan is to modernize the Indianola kill facility while we still maintain a further processing facility at the other plant.”
Last year, Delta Pride processed nearly 600 million pounds of farm-raised catfish, most of which was distributed and sold in all 50 states by direct shipment or redistribution to food service companies, restaurants and grocers. Delta Pride maintains a dedicated fleet of 30 to 50 refrigerated tractor trailers, delivers nationwide and ships internationally.
“Exports are a very small percentage of our business,” Allen said. “There’s some spillover to Mexico and Canada, and in the past, there have been a few shipments to Germany, Singapore and Japan. As a whole, the U.S. catfish industry exports less than one-half of 1% of its production.”
Like all U.S. catfish processors, Delta Pride has been challenged with an influx of Vietnamese “copycat catfish” products being sold nationwide and squeezing the U.S. catfish market, Allen said.
“The Vietnamese fish market has caused a lot of grief for all of us in the last six months,” he said. “Approximately 23% of our frozen fillet sales at the last report were coming in as fish from Vietnam.”
As Sunflower County’s largest employer, Delta Pride, established in 1981, provides nearly 600 direct and more than 1,600 indirect jobs in the Mississippi Delta, for a total economic regional impact of $170 million annually.
“Initially, a few jobs will be reduced, but our first priority is to maintain the 500 to 600 jobs at the Indianola plants,” said Allen. “Over time, as the company is more stable and we are able to increase our sales volume due to a better cost situation, we will consider adding a second shift.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.