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In state, catfish farmers stock up

Sales hopes rise as feed costs fall by Glen Chase | August 13, 2014 at 2:28 a.m.

Arkansas catfish farms saw the number of large and medium food-size fish drop in the first half of 2014 even as the number of fry and fingerlings nearly doubled.

Ted McNulty, director of the Aquaculture Division of the Arkansas Agriculture Department, said the jump in the number of young fish is a sign that fish farmers are hopeful that a rise in fish prices and lower feed costs in recent months are here to stay.

"I think we've bottomed out and those people who have made it through the battle, the long, long battle, they're going to get some money back now," McNulty said.

He said catfish is selling for about $1.25 per pound and inventories are down, creating demand which is helping brake what has been a steady decline in domestic production.

"They think at these kind of prices, they feel like they're going to stay for a while so they're going to raise more stockers so they'll get more food fish in the future," McNulty said. "The first ones that probably went out were the ones not producing their own fingerlings."

Fish farms in Arkansas had an estimated 59.9 million fingerlings and fry available as of July 1, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service's July 25 production report. That's up 84 percent from Jan. 1.

Over the same period, the number of small food-size fish rose from 8.4 million to 10.2 million, up 20.7 percent. However, the number of medium food-size fish dropped by about half, from 2.7 million to 1.3 million and the number of large fish declined 39 percent, from 330,000 to 200,000, according to the report. Small food-size fish weigh three-fourths of a pound to 1.5 pounds; medium fish weigh 1.5 to 3 pounds; and large weigh more than 3 pounds.

McNulty and Joey Lowery of Searcy, who sits on the executive board of Catfish Farmers of America, an industry trade group, agreed that the jump in fingerlings and fry is a sign that catfish farmers are growing confident about the future.

"I just think there's a lot more stability than there was," said Lowery, who has more than 300 acres of ponds in production. He said farmers are producing enough fish to keep up with demand from what he described as a "pretty loyal market."

However, pond acreage in Arkansas devoted to catfish hit 6,100 acres this year -- down from 9,000 acres in 2012 and about 25,000 acres just five years ago. Figures for 2013 aren't available.

Pond acreage declines also were reported in the other two major catfish producing states, Alabama and Mississippi, according to the statistics service. Alabama had 16,300 acres of catfish ponds while Mississippi had 41,300 acres. Alabama had 18,600 acres in production in 2012, while Mississippi had 50,700 acres that year.

Even with steady market conditions, McNulty doesn't think the industry in Arkansas will immediately return to the levels seen a decade ago. He expects farmers to maintain production at current levels, depending on feed prices and consumer demand for U.S.-produced fish. Nearly all of the catfish raised in Arkansas is processed at plants in Mississippi or Alabama.

Lowery said if farmers want to increase production, they'll likely turn to "split pond systems" that will enable them to double production on the same acreage.

"I'm thinking that if our market grows again and there's a demand for more fish, I'm thinking the people in business now can utilize some of these technologies and we could probably get back to where we was when this thing was really producing a lot of fish."

In the first six months of 2013, U.S. consumers ate 153.2 million pounds of catfish, up 5.6 percent compared with the same period of 2012, according to the latest data available from the statistics service and the U.S. Census Bureau. Imported fish made up 76 percent -- 116.5 million pounds -- with the bulk coming from Vietnam and China. U.S. farmers produced 36.7 million pounds in that same period.

Catfish farmers are still awaiting word on when the U.S. Department of Agriculture will complete its rule-making process to begin regulating and inspecting both domestic and imported catfish. The 2014 farm bill shifted the inspection program from the Food and Drug Administration to the USDA. A draft of the rules is now being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

McNulty, Lowery and others in the U.S. catfish industry have argued that farmers in other countries, including Vietnam and China, don't meet the same kind of food-safety standards that U.S. growers have to meet.

Lowery said producers need to follow the same standards when it comes to fish being sold in the United States.

While consumers are growing more aware, there's still some disconnect about country of origin because so much fish is consumed at restaurants where origin labels aren't always made available, he said.

"The best thing that can happen is that anything you bring into this country, it needs to be adequately inspected," Lowery said.

Business on 08/13/2014

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