Catfish farming

It's harvesttime on Marvin Kroeker's farm. The tractor motors are running, and the hired hands are working hard. But they're not riding the tractors, they're standing waist-deep in a 20-acre pond. And even though it was a record-breaking year in Mississippi for King Cotton, these people are surrounded by thousands of swirling gray fins. The tractors aren't pulling a cotton gin; they're dragging a huge net up the length of the pond, harvesting catfish. King Catfish? It's happening. Already in next-door Humphreys County, catfish has dethroned cotton. And, aside from a bad year in 1981, it looks as if fins and whiskers will take over more and more acres in the Mississippi Delta.

Marvin Kroeker's workers scoop the fish into a 1,500-pound-capacity net which dumps them, live, whiskers twitching out the links, into a tank truck. They are hauled off to a new processing factory in a cloud of dust and a trickle of water that sloshes out on fast corners. The truck is in a hurry; they are delivered live. Within minutes, they'll be frozen fillets.

As the net lifts out, it's a proud moment for Mr. Kroeker, a tall, stocky man in cowboy boots and glasses, big in the chest, long-legged. He looks like the Nebraska-raised former corn farmer he is. But his accent, by now, is pure Delta. And with that smile of satisfaction, as he stands on the levee of the pond, he looks like one of those mythical giant catfish that never get caught. This is just one of 11 dark green, algae-rich ponds he owns, all measured out as square as fields in the level land, all three feet deep and filled from a well that pumps the abundant ground water in this area that was once a swamp. All are ''heavy'' right now - loaded with fish waiting for a good price. He may have as many as 8,000 pounds of fish per acre.

As a crop, catfish is capital- and labor-intensive. It takes $3,500 an acre to get into this business, as opposed to $180 or so an acre for soybeans. The catfish have to be watched constantly. A million-dollar pondful can die in 10 minutes under certain conditions. But the farm-raised catfish industry is growing.

There's much more to be made from an acre of catfish than from row crops. At the peak in 1980, catfish farmers were getting from $500 to $1,000 an acre, as opposed to $35 to $40 an acre for soybeans. But that was the year everyone decided to get into the business, and production jumped up 50 percent, more than the market could bear. Farmers who can keep making interest payments, ride the volatile supply-and-demand roller coaster of a young industry, and keep their fish alive and going to the processor still have a rosy future. They may only be breaking even right now, but fish prices have started to rise and fewer people are getting into the business.

Also, catfish ponds use precisely the land the cotton farmers give up on - so-called ''buckshot'' or heavy clay soil. It doesn't grow crops very well because it holds water, which is just what's needed to make ponds. When there's a drought, which has ruined Delta row crops more than once, catfish farmers are happy. That only means it's easier to get tractors and other equipment out on the levees; the ground water keeps on coming out of the wells. A lot of fish can be harvested off a small farm (although the capital outlay has so far discouraged small farmers). And the catfish is a champion protein maker. It takes 10 pounds of feed to grow one pound of beef. For one pound of catfish, only about 1.6 pounds of feed are needed.

The reason Marvin Kroeker looks like the one that got away is that a lot of his time, money, and cunning went into this dripping netful of gray fish, and he's about to get 57 1/2 cents a pound for them. Considering he has about 10,000 pounds to truck off to the Qupid processing plant, and that fish prices are up from an earlier low of 50 cents, that's good news. Of course, much of it will go to pay off interest on the loans he got to start out - for catfish farmers, interest payments are second only to feed costs in the long line of expenses. But he can look at these tons of flopping protein and see a job well done. Not only did he follow the instructions laid out by the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service and the hunches of fellow farmers, he followed his intuitions. ''You have to try to think like a fish,'' he says.

This is a new business, and a lot remains unknown.

''I hate to say this, but most of the innovations have been made by farmers, '' says Dr. Tom Wellborn, head of the Extension Wildlife and Fisheries Department of Mississippi State University, who trained most of the catfish farmers now in business in Mississippi, starting in the late '60s. Often, these days, he says, his department is doing research to find out how a certain ploy the farmers used works.

Basically, keeping catfish alive requires a lot of attention and good management. ''The only thing it compares with is dairy farming,'' says Dr. Wellborn. ''A catfish farmer's got to live with those fish. If you leave 'em for a couple days, they're all going to die.''

Marvin Kroeker raised the fish in his hatchery from batches of eggs to fingerling size. He waited till they would run away when he held his hand over their hatchery baskets before dumping them into the pond, so he knew they were smart enough to evade predators. Then he steered them through all that can go wrong with catfish in the 18 months it took them to grow up to be salable fish.

He stayed up all night on hot, still nights to watch for their whiskers. In the opaque green water of the ponds, the farmer sees his fish only as pink mouths which come up to feed, or as the dreaded tremble of whiskers, usually late at night. When the whiskers break water, it means the fish are gasping for air. The oxygen level in the pond has fallen dangerously low, and within 10 minutes, if they don't get more air, all the fish could suffocate. Kroeker backs a paddlewheel, run by a tractor motor, into the water and starts it churning. It can bring the air level up the crucial two parts per million that make the difference between life and death. On hot nights all around their farm, Kroeker's wife, Marie, says, you can see the lights of tractors prowling the levees, as farmers look for whiskers.

Other times, catfish become mysteriously ''off flavor.'' Contrary to the image of catfish as a musky-tasting river scavenger, a farm-raised cooked catfish, which had nothing to eat but soybeans, corn, and fish meal, is light, pale, and delicate. ''He tastes like what he lives in,'' says Kroeker, who always refers to his product as ''he.'' What he lives in is ground water that comes up pure from about 125 feet down. But even in such surroundings, something can happen to the fish to give it a musky taste. No one knows for sure why. So into the scientific world of water samples, petri dishes, and chemical analysis comes guesswork, and a new kind of folk wisdom may be emerging.

''Every pond has its own personality,'' Mr. Kroeker says as we lurch along his levees in a pickup truck, surrounded on all sides by neat fields of expensively stocked, dull-green water. ''That one over there tastes bad all summer, and then it's good in December.''

When fish are discovered to be off-flavor, no processor will touch them. Off-flavor fish will go back on flavor after a while. But by that time they have eaten into profits. Catfish farming, says Roger Yant, manager of nearby Black Bottom farm, is ''basically a feedlot operation.'' That feed - a high-protein mix of corn, soybeans, and fish meal - is expensive stuff. It's about $230 a ton. Kroeker's feed bill is $1,500 a day.

Time takes other tolls. There are still so few processors that the farmer has to make an appointment to sell his fish, and he has to have the size of fish that's needed. Sometimes the market is for big, 1 1/2-pound fish; then, when the farmers have let all their fish grow to that size, there's a shortage of fish half that size. This is complicated by the fact that farmers, unable to see into the water, aren't really sure what's there. Mr. Yant, who considers himself a good record keeper, says, as Kroeker drives us around Black Bottom farm's levees in his van, ''I show that pond over there with a negative inventory of 5,000 pounds and they're still eatin' four, five hundred pounds a day. . . . It's food conversion does it to us. For some reason, whether it's differences in water quality, differences in genetics of the fish in the pond, I don't know. Some ponds convert (feed into fish) better than other ponds. You think everything's identical. . . . But one pond you get a 1.5 to 1 (feed to fish) conversion and the pond right next to it you get a 2 to 1 conversion.''

Although catfish has been raised since the '60s, it has only been considered an industry since 1974, says Dr. John Waldrop of Mississippi State University's Agricultural and Forestry Experiment station. It was then that serious marketing efforts began, and that farmers began harvesting catfish year round, not just in the fall. The business, he says, is ''in its infancy.'' He has no way of knowing exactly, but he says catfish is bringing an influx of money into this part of Mississippi, which otherwise has had bad crop years for the last few years. The slowdown in 1981 is regarded by farmers, producers, and experts alike as a ''growing pain'' in an essentially healthy new business.

Dr. Wellborn says there is a definite generation of capital, though ''farmers are poor-mouthers'' who won't admit when they're making money. ''With falling interest rates and an increase in fish prices, farmers are out of financial trouble,'' he says. Feed prices, too, are down. And by October, processors had sold nearly 81 million pounds of fish - up 61 percent from October the year before. Despite the farmers' dour reports, he says, ''Somebodym is selling a tremendous amount of fish. Fish is up, feed is down. The potential is there for somebody to make money.''

And so the battle goes on against off-flavor fish, against interest rates and the problem of oversupply and under-supply. And the wily light in Marvin Kroeker's eyes says that he's enjoying it. ''I like it,'' he says. ''And I don't like gamblin'. I wouldn't throw dice for money because of losin' it too quick, I guess. I like to watch it go.'' He gives a big chuckle. Irony aside, he says that ''it has a lot of possibilities, and I enjoy a challenge.''

Kroeker, who also has an agricultural flying service spraying other farmers' more traditional crops, has plenty of stories to tell about flying down a field and looking up to see a telephone pole a few feet in front of him and managing not to hit it. In the catfish business, he has taken similar risks, getting into the business when oversupply was worst. He is also designing his own tank trucks. He and Roger Yant say they just have to try every new technique that comes up.

Marie Kroeker is enthusiastic, too. The truck goes by Yant's pond, spraying feed, and the pink catfish mouths come up to get it, and she says, ''Aw. Aren't they eatin' good?'' with a touch of tenderness in her voice.''We've got a lot of good things goin' for us,'' says Yant.

''We've got a good-quality product. We've got a continuous supply. It's not dependent upon the weather. It's not dependent on ocean currents. We know what we can grow. . . . If the demand's for big fish, small fish, give us enough time and we'll get the job done.'' He pointed out that the price of catfish in grocery stores has been around $2 a pound for eight years, while other fish went up. ''Of any industry I know of right now - poultry, pork, beef, ocean fisheries - I don't see how we can't compete with 'em and stay less expensive. And when you've got a good product and you've got a good price - ''

'' - That's hard to beat,'' says Kroeker.

He has done well, though he won't say how well. All one has to go by is that smile as he watches protein loading into his tank truck.

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