Such was the case with the mid-February annual meeting of the Catfish Farmers of America at Little Rock’s Peabody Hotel. Reporting on the gathering, the hometown Arkansas Democrat-Gazette noted “doom and gloom” have become the new buzzwords for a domestic industry sagging badly from import-induced price pressures.
Robert Barlow, president of the Indianola-based Catfish Institute, noticed a further thinning of the ranks at last week‘s annual meeting. Many who have recently departed the sector have been in aquaculture production since its inception, Barlow said.
“A lot of people are exiting the business after having been in it for 50 years,” he said. “When you have a product selling significantly under the cost of the products, you have a tipping point.” From January 2010 to January 2011, more than 20 percent of the region‘s producers decided they had reached that tipping point and closed operations, the New York Times reported last August.
Val Slater, a longtime attorney for the domestic catfish farming industry, also attended the Little Rock gathering. She noticed a number of the sector’s significant players have left. Further, “others who were here at the start of the industry are getting out,” she said.
The tough part, she said, comes with thinking of what could have been. “It’s such a great American story,” she said. “It was something that was built up out of nothing.”
Barlow, meanwhile, is not ready to refer to the catfish farming industry of Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana in the past tense — but he’s headed there.
“It has been a great industry,” he said, one that caught on quickly and fed the nation’s appetite for a slightly gritty, mildly peppery tasting white fish with a moist texture.
The demand remains — but the market is showing a preference for the much cheaper pangasius catfish cultivated in Vietnam and China.
The Asian price edge grows as the price of the commercially prepared grains used to feed domestically grown catfish grows. Pangasius exporters can sell at nearly $2.50 a pound lower than the product produced in the U.S. Catfish Belt.
As a result, the market has reversed itself since 2003, when U.S. producers had an 80 percent share, with imports claiming the rest. Today, the challenge for U.S. producers is to hang on the 20 percent or so of the market they still have.
That will require reversing a trend that has seen pangasius import levels triple since 2008.
Last year alone, the U.S. round weight of catfish processed fell 10 percent from 334 million pounds in 2011 to 300 million pounds, according to Under Currents, an international organization that reports on the seafood business.
Barlow concedes Mississippi, the largest of the farm-raised catfish producers, and the other Catfish Belt states are in the late rounds of a fight that is not going well.
It’s not just what he says is the massive dumping of Asian catfish on the U.S. market. The sustained economic slump that is keeping domestically raised catfish off American dinner tables, rising gasoline prices raising farm-to-market costs, steadily increasing grain prices and bankers growing reluctant to lend to cash-strapped producers — these are also contributing to what Barlow calls “a desperate situation.”
What’s needed most immediately, he said, is for the price of grain commodities to start tumbling down. “I don’t see that,” he added.
Meanwhile, the region’s catfish farmers, he said, are scratching “holes in their heads trying to figure out how to stay in business.”
Tunica producer Bill Battle is among those doing the scratching.
Survival to this point, Battle said, has come from a base of buyers who love American-grown catfish. “We have enough loyal customers so far that we are able to keep going,” said Battle, owner of Pride of the Pond, an aquaculture operation of about 1,800 acres and a processing plant that employs around 120 workers.
Most of those customers who insist on U.S. grown catfish are limited to the Southeastern United States, with half of that demand coming from restaurant customers, he noted.
In a prolonged recession marked by frequent gasoline price spikes, Battle said, “The first thing that goes is the night out on the town. When gas goes up, there goes your weekend eat-out money.”
To hang on, Pride of the Pond has cut back on acreage and the amount of fish it harvests. It also has laid off “quite a few” workers over the past six months, Battle said.
The margin he needs is steadily vanishing, he added. “If the price does not change and we do not get some help out of Washington as far as trade and commerce, I do not look for it to get much better.”
Pride of the Pond has been in Battle’s family since 1969. But how much longer is uncertain, he said.
Battle’s oldest son will join the family business after graduating from Mississippi State University this year. Another son still has a year and a half left at MSU, Battle said.
“I would like for him to come back and work for us, but we will just have to see what the business does.”