Arkansas' catfish production down 37% year-over-year to 13.09 million fish as of Jan. 1., USDA says; sales of catfish to processors down 17% to US$33.42M in 2011

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas , February 1, 2012 () – The catfish industry in the state continued its downward spiral in 2011, with declines in acreage, production and sales.

However, national production and sales were up slightly as prices rose and farmers in other states grew more fish on fewer acres. Still, acreage continued to decline in the major catfish-producing states.

Arkansas is the third-largest catfish-producing state, behind Mississippi and Alabama.

"We certainly have lost a lot of acres in the last few years," said Charles Collins, executive director of Catfish Farmers of Arkansas. "Prices just haven't been there for farmers to maintain acreage. But prices are a lot better, and hopefully that will stabilize the market."

Collins said farmers left the industry as the price of feed went up while the price paid by catfish processors remained the same in 2010 and the first few months of 2011. He added that foreign competition has further stressed the market in the U.S.

The higher price that processors are paying has made it difficult for smaller processors to remain in business.

Delta Supreme Fish Processors stopped processing fish at its plant in Dumas and let go 30 employees in January, owner Irvin Holdeman said Tuesday. Now the company has six people working at the facility, which continues to distribute fish throughout the region.

He said it was difficult to compete with larger Mississippi-based processors such as Heartland Catfish and America's Catch, which can process more fish to make up for slimmer margins.

"The profit margin just wasn't there," Holdeman said. "Letting those employees go was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."

As of Jan. 1, producers in Arkansas had 13.09 million food-size fish — 37 percent fewer than a year earlier, when Arkansas farmers had 20.82 million food-size catfish, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Catfish farms shed about 3,500 water surface acres in the state in 2011, a 26.5 percent decrease to 9,700 acres, the lowest in a decade, according to USDA figures.

Nationwide, surface acres fell a little more than 10 percent in 2011, to 89,390. However, inventory for food-size catfish was up 3 percent, to 181 million.

Sales of catfish in Arkansas to processors last year were down 17 percent to $33.42 million, from $40.77 million in 2010. Sales nationwide were up 5 percent to $423 million.

The sales increase is due to the higher prices paid by processors. With fewer fish available, the price paid by processors to farmers was up in 2011, averaging $1.05 a pound. An increase from an average of 77 cents in 2010.

The price increase may have a stabilizing effect on the catfish industry as farmers consider putting acres back into production, said Carole Engle, director of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's aquaculture program.

"Right now, there is still a shortage of catfish," Engle said. "It takes about a year and a half to two years for a farm to get a pond back in production, so the numbers we're seeing right now still reflect 2010. I expect to see a rise in production numbers this year."

She said that advances in "split pond" production could also lead to increases in inventory in the state as more farmers adjust to the new method.

Split-pond farming allows for more fish to grow on fewer acres when a levee is built through a pond that splits it in two. Fish are on one side, while the wastewater is circulated to the other side, cleaned and circulated back to the fish pond.

That allows for more oxygen in the fish pond, which raises yields significantly, Engle said.

Engle said though she remained cautious as the new system is still in the testing stages.

"It's got a lot of farmers excited," she said. "We may be seeing a major change in the way catfish is made."

Ted McNulty, head of the Aquaculture Division of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, said he expects food inventory and acreage to stabilize but that it is unlikely for at least a few years.

"Once these farmers take their land out of production, it's hard to get it back," he said. "This is a trend we'll see across the catfish-producing states."

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