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Today is September 16, 2021

Catfish: Mississippi’s mighty catch

By Steven Ward

Catfish: Mississippi’s mighty catch

Mississippi catfish farmers Jerry Nobile (left) and son Will Nobile stand near one of their catfish ponds in Moorhead.

Catfish farmer Will Nobile is driving a truck slowly alongside one of his ponds while a steady stream of fish feed fires from a computer-controlled spout attached to the side of his vehicle.

The surface of the pond water transforms from a still brown to what looks like glass cracks in motion or hard raindrops as the fish race to the top in a feeding frenzy.

Feeding is just one of many jobs on a catfish farm.

“It’s a 24/7, 365 job. It takes a special person to work on a catfish farm,” Nobile, 42, said recently.

Nobile is a special catfish farmer.

Nobile has been named the Mississippi Catfish Farmer of the Year two years in a row by The Catfish Institute, a national trade group that promotes U.S. farm-raised catfish.

Mississippi is a special place when it comes to catfish.

Mississippi is the largest catfish producing state in the nation with 60 to 70% of total production, said Mike McCall of Catfish Farmers of America and editor of The Catfish Journal.

“With about 35,000 acres and annual farmer sales of about $240 million, the Mississippi industry remains an economic powerhouse, especially in the Delta and east Mississippi,” McCall said.

“These numbers don’t include thousands of people employed at processing plants, feed mills, farms and support industries.”

Nobile works with his father Jerry, 70, on their family farm in Moorhead. A good portion of their Delta farm is powered by Delta Electric Power Association.

The Nobiles farm 700 water acres from 70 ponds. They also have a catfish hatchery and acreage with soybeans.

The farm was created by Nobile’s grandfather in the 1940s and his dad expanded operations in the 1980s with catfish.

“My dad built our first ponds in the mid-80s when cotton and soybean prices kind of hit bottom. He bought a John Deere 4850 with two, 10-yard dirt buckets and started building ponds. He built six at first and a couple more every year until the early 2000s when I came back from college,” Nobile said.

“We almost doubled in size when we purchased an old out-of-production farm about five miles north of us and rebuilt it and put it back in operation. Ever since then, we have stayed about the same size, but we are always renovating ponds due to water and wind erosion. Fish just grow better in rebuilt fresh ponds.”

Like any industry, catfish processing in Mississippi has ups and downs.

“For the last several years, industrywide processing volume has ranged from 340 million to 300 million pounds. Of course, adequate fish prices are very important to farmers and processors. Also, other issues confront the industry, including the pandemic impacts, feed prices, fish health, labor shortages and import competition,” McCall said.

“Catfish farming is almost feast or famine. It’s like nobody has catfish, and the price is high, or everybody has catfish, and the price is low, and you can’t give them away,” Nobile said.

He said grain prices affect the bottom line of profitability because catfish feed is made from grains. Foreign competition, mainly from China and Vietnam, also plays a role in catfish farming profitability.

“That’s why when you are in a restaurant or store you need to make sure you are buying U.S. farm-raised catfish,” Nobile said.

According to a report published in August 2020, Mississippi catfish farms’ productivity rose to 5,700 pounds per acre in 2019 from 3,100 pounds per acre in 2011, the Mississippi State University Extension Service reported.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported last year that the U.S. catfish industry generated about $379 million in sales in 2019, of which $226 million originated from farms in Mississippi.

Although Mississippi catfi sh export numbers are not available, the U.S. Department of Commerce tracks total industry exports. For the most recent month on record, the industry shipped 135,000 pounds of processed catfish to Canada, Mexico, China and the Caribbean islands, McCall said.

Even though Nobile works with them every day, he never tires of eating catfish.

“I love it and my family eats it at least once per week. It’s hard to beat it fried but I also like it grilled or baked in the oven. I have a recipe I like to cook also called Quarantine Catfish that you can find at The Catfish Institute’s website — uscatfish.com,” he said.

Nobile said he loves catfish farming and wouldn’t do anything else.

“I have always worked on the farm while growing up and, without a doubt in my mind, it’s what I have always wanted to do,” Nobile said.

 

Catfish fast facts:

 

Where is U.S. farm-raised catfish raised?

Ninety-four percent of all U.S. farm-raised catfish is raised in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Today, the industry employs nearly 10,000 people and contributes more than $4 billion to each state’s economy.

 

How is U.S. farm-raised catfish raised?

Mature catfish remain in production an average of 4 to 6 years, depending on where they are grown, and lay 3,000 to 4,000 eggs annually per pound of body weight. Once the eggs are laid and fertilized, they are collected and taken to special hatcheries designed to replicate the natural environment. The eggs hatch after seven days and move to the next level of maturation, called “sac fry” because of the attached yolk sacs that supply their food.

Soon, the tiny U.S. farm-raised catfish begin to swim and are moved to ponds, where they grow into fingerlings. When the fingerlings are about 4 to 6 inches long (the size of an index finger), they are placed in manmade ponds filled with fresh water pumped from underground wells.

When the catfish reach about 1 pound each, they are harvested with seines (large, weighted nets) and loading baskets, then taken to processing plants.

 

How long does it take to grow U.S. farm-raised catfish?

It takes about 18 months to two years to grow a 1-pound fish.

 

How large is a full-grown U.S. farm-raised catfish?

A full-grown fish averages between 1 and 2 pounds

 

What does “farm-raised” mean?

U.S. farm-raised catfish is raised in environmentally controlled, clay-based ponds, filled with freshwater pumped from underground wells and filtered by alluvial aquifers. The average pond, constructed by building above-ground levees to serve as natural barriers, is 10 to 20 land acres in area and 4 to 6 feet deep.

 

What gives U.S. farm-raised catfish its clean, mild taste?

Fish tends to adopt the flavor characteristics of what they eat. Because U.S. farm-raised catfish are fed a scientifically formulated diet of high-protein pellets that float on top of the water, it has a consistently mild, slightly sweet flavor.

 

Visit uscatfish.com for more information about U.S. catfish farming.

 

 

Classic fried catfish with hushpuppies

 

For the catfish:

 

INGREDIENTS

4 U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Vegetable oil for frying

 

Instructions

Combine cornmeal, flour, salt, cayenne pepper and garlic powder.

Coat catfish with mixture, shaking off excess. Fill a large, heavy skillet half full with vegetable oil. Heat to 350 degrees.

Add catfish in a single layer, and fry until golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes, depending on size.

Remove fish from oil and drain on paper towels.

Serve with hushpuppies.

 

For the hushpuppies:

 

INGREDIENTS

1 1/2 cups self-rising cornmeal

1/2 cup self-rising flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup jalapeños, finely chopped (optional)

4 green onions, thinly sliced

1 cup buttermilk

1 large egg, beaten

1/2 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

 

Instructions

Preheat oil to 350 degrees. Combine cornmeal, flour, sugar and salt. Mix well. In a separate bowl, combine jalapeños, onions, buttermilk, egg and cheese. Add to dry ingredients, stirring until just moistened. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes. Drop batter by heaping teaspoons into heated oil and fry, turning hushpuppies to cook evenly, until golden brown.

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