BELZONI – Earlier this month, Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell stopped the sale of 15,000 pounds of imported catfish, valued at approximately $33,000, for non-compliance with state labeling laws. The catfish were produced in China and labeled “farm-raised,” a violation of state law.
Banning the sale of mislabeled foreign catfish in Mississippi was a coup for the industry, which has battled the influx of imported catfish to the U.S. marketplace, and will give industry leaders another reason to celebrate the 29th annual World Catfish Festival being held April 3 in Belzoni in Humphreys County, the catfish capital of the world for U.S. farm-raised catfish.
“Mississippi`s catfish industry has toughed out the past few years,” said Spell. “The fight will continue with imports, but the combination of federal and state sanctions on imported fish has allowed prices to improve. However, prices must continue to move upward. Also, more and more, consumers desire to know where food comes from, so Mississippi will continue to provide a safe and superior product raised on the farm. The foundation of the catfish industry is in Mississippi, and we will continue to take the necessary steps to expand, grow, and profit.”
The Mississippi catfish chapter began in the 1960s, when farm-raised catfish was introduced as a new cash crop in Humphreys County. In 1970, 5.7 million pounds of farm-raised catfish were produced. In 1986, catfish farmers and feed suppliers established The Catfish Institute (TCI), and from 1986 to 1997, catfish sales steadily rose from $223 million to nearly $600 million. By 2002, nearly 650 million pounds of farm-raised catfish were being produced. Today, U.S. farm-raised catfish is the No. 1 farm-raised finfish in America, and the fourth most popular fish to eat in America.
Approximately 3,000 people attended the first catfish festival on the Humphreys County Courthouse lawn on April 7, 1976, held in conjunction with the nation`s bicentennial anniversary celebration and to promote the industry. A catfish-eating contest, beauty contest, children`s play, musical entertainment and arts and crafts took place inside the courthouse, and plenty of fresh-fried catfish was available to eat.
The festival now encompasses the entire downtown area, covering four streets for the arts and crafts show and entertainment stages. Many of the traditional activities remain on the agenda, including a mid-afternoon catfish-eating contest sponsored by Cellular South that calls for consuming three pounds of catfish fillets in less than three minutes. Last year, Floyd Whitacre defeated defending champion James Williams of Houston, Texas.
Because of its reputation as a family-oriented event, travel industry professionals have named the World Catfish Festival one of the top 100 events in North America and one of the top 20 events in the Southeast. The 2004 sponsors include BankPlus, Cellular South, Coca-Cola, Delta News WXVT 15, Freshwater Farms Grain-Fed Catfish, Guaranty Bank & Trust Company, Miss 103, Power 107 WBYP-FM, Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish and Supervalu.
During the annual festival, Belzoni`s population swells from 2,500 to 20,000 for the daytime event that begins at 8:45 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m.
“It`s always good to have such a large number of family folks coming into town,” said Belzoni Mayor Thomas N. Turner Jr.
Lacy Tollison School of Dance will kick off the 2004 schedule, followed by Cheryl McPherson and the Delta All Stars. The Krackerjacks will perform at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and The Bluz Boys, based in Jackson, will entertain the crowd at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. At noon, 2003 Miss Catfish Crystal Coghlan, with the help of catfish mascot “Miss Small Fry,” will crown her successor.
The much-revered catfish fry will take place from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. between the courthouse and the Methodist Church. Adults pay $7 and children pay $5 for all the catfish they can eat. The Catfish Institute will host a cooking demonstration featuring Food TV host Jill Cordes.
The Colgate Country Music Showdown, America`s largest talent showcase, will provide entertainment from 2 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. Country music superstars Garth Brooks, Lee Ann Rimes, Martina McBride and Tim McGraw jump-started their careers on the showcase tour.
For $1 admission, visitors can attend the Belzoni Garden Club Children`s Play “Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” at the Depot Theatre at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. From 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., the Catfish Women of America will host an open house at The Catfish Capitol, featuring handcrafted exhibits by state artisans and members of the Mississippi Craftsmen`s Guild. For $6, adventurers of all ages can climb – or attempt to scale – the 25-foot high Rhino Rock Climbing Wall.
Catfish on Parade, a public art project sponsored by the Humphreys Art Council, the City of Belzoni and the Belzoni-Humphreys Development Foundation and featuring more than two dozen catfish sculptures, will be displayed throughout the downtown area.
“Businesses in the downtown area will profit from the increase in foot traffic,” said Turner. “The World Catfish Festival is a very positive influence for our community.”
TCI will have a booth set up for festivalgoers to vote online for U.S. farm-raised catfish as “America`s fish.” Nearly 500 people have already signed the petition by visiting www.vote4catfish.com.
“We’re very excited about the catfish festival and promoting farm-raised catfish,” said TCI president Roger Barlow.
Turner added: “Make that Mississippi farm-raised catfish.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.