INDIANOLA — The Catfish Institute (TCI) has a new, homegrown leader.
On August 1st, Roger E. Barlow, former director of the market development division for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC), took over as president of The Catfish Institute, a marketing organization established in 1986 by catfish feed mills to promote farm-raised catfish in the U.S.
Since joining MDAC in 1989, Barlow has been responsible for various areas of agriculture marketing, including catfish, in the U.S. and overseas. He served as interim director of the Southern U.S. Trade Association, seeking markets abroad for Mississippi products. He also served on the 13-member Mississippi Land, Water and Timber Resources Board, which funds projects that offer value-added opportunities.
A Vicksburg native, Barlow earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mississippi College, farmed soybeans, wheat, milo, corn, cotton and cattle, and worked with the Federal Land Bank Association as large asset manager and First South Production Credit as branch manager before joining MDAC.
“Roger…brings valuable marketing skills to The Catfish Institute,” said TCI board chairman Harry Simmons. “He has worked with the catfish industry on many projects and is very familiar with our industry.”
Barlow, who lives in Madison with his wife, Susan, and their children, Hunter and Molly, discussed his recent career move with the Mississippi Business Journal.
Mississippi Business Journal: Why did you decide to make a career move now?
Roger Barlow: Over the last 12 years, I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to be involved with developing markets for Mississippi agricultural products at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. Working with all segments of agriculture, we developed many programs targeted to getting more value for agriculture. Now, as president of The Catfish Institute, I have another opportunity to serve the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry. TCI has done an exceptional job of marketing catfish to U.S. consumers since its formation in 1986 and I want to continue that work.
MBJ: What are the biggest challenges facing today’s catfish industry?
RB: The U.S. farm-raised catfish industry faces many challenges competing in today’s marketplace. While our presence in the South is significant, we are a small segment of the food industry nationally. And we don’t have the resources to promote our products as larger food industries do.
As you know, we’ve had to compete against cheap imports that were not really catfish and thankfully consumers have loyally supported us all the way. Our farmers are struggling with the lowest fish prices in 20 years, and we are losing some of them. So one of our primary challenges in the coming years will be to continue to produce enough product to meet demand.
Farmers also face a range of other production problems, including diseases and rising operating costs. So these are very trying times for our industry. And yet, last year, we processed a record 630 million pounds of catfish, and this year we’re running 9% ahead of that pace, so U.S. farm-raised catfish is more popular than ever.
MBJ: Tell us about aquaculture opportunities in Mississippi.
RB: Because of economic problems now facing our industry, we expect to see fewer farmers in the future, resulting in less opportunity. But when we emerge from this downturn, there will be more opportunity in all segments of the industry. Value-added processed catfish products, for example, remain a frontier for our industry and we see opportunity there.
MBJ: Tell us about what The Catfish Institute does, and your top priorities there.
RB: The Catfish Institute was formed in 1986 by a group of Mississippi catfish feed mills to promote farm-raised catfish. Feed mills contribute $5 per ton to TCI for every ton of feed sold to producers. TCI, working with advertising and public relations agencies and other professionals, develops campaigns to educate the public, food service sector and retailers about farm-raised catfish — how it meets the needs of today’s consumers for a flavorful and nutritious food.
Since its inception, TCI has spent more than $50 million to promote farm-raised catfish. During that time, processing has grown from under 100 million pounds to more than 630 million pounds annually. Now, feed mills in Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina participate in TCI. The institute will work hard to ensure that U.S. farm-raised catfish is at the forefront of the consumer’s mind. TCI is charged with ‘taking it to the plate’ and the consumer is the key.
MBJ: Can you comment on the political scene for the upcoming general election?
RB: I can comment that agriculture is the most important industry in Mississippi and that all elected officials need to keep that in mind. We need leaders who understand the issues that our farmers face and how difficult it is to make a living in today’s agriculture economy.
MBJ: What else is on your agenda?
RB: I will strive to continue the work that TCI has done in the past. The leadership, which the board of directors has provided, is a model for all agricultural organizations. U.S. farm-raised catfish has grown from a regional southern favorite to a quality product recognized throughout the nation. That just didn’t happen overnight. It took years of hard work by farmers, catfish processors and TCI.
MBJ: What is on TCI’s legislative and congressional wish list?
RB: The Catfish Institute will work closely with other organizations such as Catfish Farmers of America, state producer associations, Delta Council, state departments of agriculture, our congressional delegations, and other groups to represent the interests of catfish farmers.
MBJ: Anything else you’d like to address?
RB: Mississippi’s catfish industry represents a very important part of our economy. All Mississippians are proud of the fact that Mississippi is the number one catfish- producing state in the world. The future of our industry and catfish farmers in neighboring states as well is in our farmers’ pledge to continue to offer the highest quality and safest food product possible. The consumer has placed tremendous trust in our industry and we will work hard every day to earn that trust.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.