The challenges Mississippi catfish farmers face in 2019 are many, but growth of one of the state’s eight processing facilities is one positive sign for the industry.
Macon-based Superior Catfish products is set to break ground on a $15 million expansion later this month. A grant from the Mississippi Development Authority will aid in the Noxubee County company’s efforts.
“Our main thrust is to add more production to our facility. When we are finished, our goal is to have increased production by 30% of what we are today,” said general manager Fred Johnson. “Right now, we are processing about 20 million pounds of catfish per year, and we are hoping to get close to 30 million.”
Increased production has become a nationwide trend over the last five years. In 2019, it is on pace to match last year’s 341 million pounds. Surpassing that amount would mark six straight years of higher output.
Despite pond acreage decreasing from 70,000 acres in 2009 to 35,700 this year, Mississippi producers are improving their bottom lines by getting more efficient at raising catfish.
“In 2009, the average yield per acre was 3,865 pounds per acre,” said Jimmy Avery, aquaculture professor for the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “In 2018, that yield has increased to 6,991 pounds per acre. The primary technologies behind this increase are a switch to more intensive systems, better aeration, and the use of hybrid catfish.”
The average price farmers received this July was $1.06 per pound compared to 98 cents in July 2018. Feed cost during the first five months of 2019 was $370 per ton, down $27 per ton during the same period in 2018.
Increased processing capabilities will eventually help Mississippi catfish growers face one of the industry’s largest issues: fish weight. In 2018, U.S. catfish producers lost $14.6 million due to processors paying discounted prices for fish that were too large.
“In 2018, 68% of what consumers bought as ‘catfish’ was imported product,” Avery said. “Market stability also remains a challenge as even slight oversupplies lead to price fluctuations. Farmers are facing an increasing resistance from processors to buy fish that weigh more than 4 pounds. There are simply not enough market outlets for these big fish.”
Johnson said there is a growing number of consumers who are becoming more conscious about where their catfish are coming from, prompting the need to ramp up production. He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture taking over catfish inspection from the Food and Drug Administration in 2016 has protected the American consumer who seeks a domestic product.
“I think the demand for U.S. farm-raised product is growing,” he said. “The USDA overseeing inspection has given it more recognition as a safe product. The market is strengthening because more people are eating catfish today than 5 years ago in general.”