By CALLIE DANIELS BRYANT
Catfish is an undeniable part of Mississippi’s cuisine, especially fried catfish with hot sauce. With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that Heartland Catfish Company, a family-owned catfish farm founded in 1995, is the largest single producer of farm-raised catfish in the United States.
On March 11 to 13, Heartland will feature vacuum skin-packaged catfish products at the 2018 Seafood Expo North America (SENA) in Boston, Massachusetts. The new packaging will preserve freshness and extend shelf life so Heartland can potentially increase sales in fresh and frozen catfish around the world in restaurants and retail stores.
The vice president of sales, Jonathan Mills, said, “We are always excited to go to the SENA every year. We can meet with potential and existing customers. We usually arrive with certain objectives in mind that we hope to achieve, and most of the time we come home with completely new objectives. The food industry is rapidly changing, and we try to respond to our customers’ ever-changing needs. SENA also provides us with an opportunity to see new innovations in processing equipment. It’s a pleasure to represent the Mississippi Delta on a large stage and introduce the versatility of catfish to potential new customers and consumers.”
Heartland’s CEO, Danny Walker, is interested in the discussion around U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) enforcing import regulations on siluriforms (catfish and other ray-finned fish) this March which may affect its global competition.
Walker said, “As for FSIS, most of the domestic processors are becoming accustomed to the FSIS expectations and procedures. Hopefully the importers of siluriforms will reach a level of full equivalency in the near future. There’s sure to be a discussion of the changes in regulations from experts as part of the SENA exposition, which is going to be very interesting.”
The company has expressed strong support for USDA FSIS inspection program and has worked with inspectors to set the updated industry standard.
This level of attention and dedication to quality of catfish from raising to processing and packaging is a discipline the family has honored for generations.
“Heartland Catfish Company grew successfully because the Tackett family applied the same basic principles to processing as they have applied to farming since the mid-1960s: hard work and commitment to quality. Once the Tacketts decided to begin processing, they were committed to finding the best team, equipment and relationships (farmers, customers, and suppliers) to consistently supply the highest quality U.S. farm-raised catfish under the Heartland Catfish brand.”
The global company has its roots in the Delta in mid-1970s when William Tackett, his son Jim Tackett and his son-in-law Joe Walker began raising catfish on 80 acres in Leflore County. The Tackett Fish Farm grew and sold catfish until 1995 when the three men decided to act on their long-discussed aspiration for a processing plant. Then-president of Tackett Fish Farm, Danny Walker, was asked by the three original owners to become the CEO of the new processing plant: Heartland Catfish Company.
The plant is located on a 50-acre site along Highway 82, just east of Itta Bena. The 135,000 square-foot facility utilizes state-of-art equipment that helps it grade fish by weight to increase meat yields, regulate air and water temperatures to minimize fillet degradation and discourage bacteria growth on the equipment. The facility also utilizes direct-fired water heaters for cleaning crew to maintain a sanitary work environment.
After the fish are cut and filleted by size and weight, they are individually quick frozen in minutes. Heartland has same-day access to its in-house storage with a capacity of 2,000,000 pounds of catfish. The company’s website reports that “unanticipated mechanical issues do not halt production,” so the company is able to provide fresh catfish year-round. The company also has its own fleet of 24 late-model Kenworth tractors and 32 late-model refrigerated trailers that drives across United States weekly.
Walker knew Heartland was competing with established companies in the catfish market, but he, like the family, was no stranger to hard work and commitment to best quality.
“We want our customers and consumers to know they can rely on Heartland Catfish for consistently mild-tasting, high-quality catfish products,” said Walker.
He added that the Heartland catfish is recognized for its consistent flavor and texture, making it a versatile fish for grilling, baking, sautéing or frying.
Mills added that what sets Heartland apart from other catfish in the market is its “vertical integration and experienced staff” in addition to having more than half its supply from Tackett Farms meaning the company has control of the product from egg through harvest.
“The balance of our supply is sourced from our trusted partner-farms throughout the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas as well as the Black Belt region of Alabama, and our experienced staff includes a dedicated tester who ensures each delivery of Heartland Catfish meets our strict flavor standards,” said Mills.
Due to its popularity, Heartland has enjoyed relationships with most of the major grocery retailers in the U.S. It is also poised to increase sales and production on a global scale.
“We feel that the largest, most immediate opportunity for growth is within the retail section of the seafood industry. As retail consumers become more and more aware of our products’ versatility, and we continue to make innovative advancements in packaging and product forms, the possibility for increased movement is real,” Mills said.
Heartland is looking for ways to expand production provided the sales expand or at least remain consistent.
“Our industry is at its healthiest when supply is stable or increasing, and the demand is moving along with the same path. Fluctuations in either supply or demand can lead to volatility in the marketplace, due to extended grow-out periods, and can take time to correct,” Mills said.
He added that Heartland has experienced a moderate level of sales growth in recent years, and the company is looking forward to the impact of its new packaging on the global scale.
As the company sets its sights for the world, it hasn’t forgotten its Delta roots. Heartland has made an economic impact on LeFlore County and it hopes to upkeep success for its homeland.
“The team at Heartland Catfish Company is proud of our Mississippi Delta roots,” Walker said. “Throughout the supply chain, from the farms, to transportation to our processing plant, we’re constantly looking for ways to give back to LeFlore County through jobs, community involvement and local partnerships. The catfish industry is vital to this region of our state, and we’re very proud to play our part in strengthening this industry so we can further improve the Delta region.”
Walker and Mills are looking forward to the possibilities their new vacuum-skin packaging method could reel in from the Seafood Expo as well as global retailers.
“…Through our initial retail partnerships, it seems that we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the product’s potential. We put our consumers first when considering new products to bring to the market,” Walker said.
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