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February 22, 2008   Email to Friend 

Darryal Ray
(334) 613-4187
February 22, 2008

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis announces the release of a $3.1 million disaster assistance package for 138 Alabama catfish farmers. Standing behind Davis, from left, are: Jimmy Carlisle, commodity director of the Alabama Farmers Federation; catfish producer Paul Wheeler of Perry County; and Ron Sparks, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture & Industries.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Even before the check comes, Dallas County catfish producer Butch Wilson won't have to think twice about what he'll do with the money he will soon receive from a USDA disaster relief grant -- he will pay bills.

Wilson is one of 138 Alabama catfish producers whose ponds have been slammed by hurricanes, tornadoes and drought but will soon be sharing in a $3.1 million disaster relief grant from the USDA. The relief funds will be mailed out Monday, and -- thanks to some legislative maneuvers from U.S. Rep. Artur Davis and efforts by the Alabama Farmers Federation -- will include assistance for damages caused by last year's drought as well.

"Alabama is not new to disasters -- we have them in all shapes, forms and fashions," Ron Sparks, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries, said at a Thursday afternoon press conference that also included Davis and Wilson's fellow catfish farmers, Sid Nelson of Sumter County and Paul Wheeler of Perry County. "As government, we need to step in sometime to help our farmers through a rugged period."

Wilson, chairman of the Federation's State Catfish Committee, said the "timing" of the assistance was just right for his farm, which sustained damage from two hurricanes and was reeling from the strain of high feed costs and low catfish prices. "Some of our assets have been washed away," he said. "We've had to reconstruct ponds, I spent $40,000 more pumping water last year than I would normally spend and the price of feed has doubled in the last 12 months."

Wheeler said the funds would go a long way in the Black Belt, where most of Alabama's catfish industry is centered. "The economic structure of the Black Belt is agriculturally based, and without some government help, the economic base of this area would really be hurting," he said.

Wilson agreed, saying, "The good thing about this money is that the $3.1 million will stay in the Black Belt region and will either go toward buying feed or, down the road, contract work on rebuilding ponds. So it means a lot to the eight-county area we represent."

Davis said he was certain the funds weren't enough to offset all the losses, but hoped it will help the farmers through what has been "the most difficult drought that our state has experienced."

"It's gone on for two years, and we're going to keep working," said Davis. "We're going to keep working hard for a very simple reason -- our state's economy depends on people like these (farmers). We can build all the steel we want, we can have all the high-tech we want, but it can't happen without our thinking of the agricultural sector of this state."

Hurricanes and drought aside, the state's catfish industry has also been hurt by the importation of fish from Vietnam and Chinese channel catfish. Both countries, Davis said, are guilty of "eroding and damaging" the state's catfish industry.

"There's no reason for those two countries, which are competing with us so aggressively, to be exempt from rules which apply to the rest of the world," said Davis, who has been working toward a bill to close the loopholes.

"We've lost about 30 to 40 percent of our market the last three years to imports," said Wilson. "We feel like it's an unfair advantage when they can use illegal products to decrease their cost of production. We feel like we have the safest food in the world in Alabama thanks to our commissioner, and we want to keep it that way."

Federation Commodity Director Jimmy Carlisle said Sparks has led the charge for food safety in Alabama. "Commissioner Sparks has been recognized nationally, and rightfully so, for his work in combating unsafe foreign fish," said Carlisle. "By testing these fish for drugs banned in the United States, he has helped make our food supply safer."

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