When Perry County catfish farmer Paul Wheeler took a risk nearly 20 years ago and started his catfish farm, he knew there would be challenges. What he wasn’t prepared for was consumers’ willingness to welcome foreign fish imports. The result — a sinking market.
“Foreign competition is causing quite a problem for American catfish farmers,” explained Wheeler, 60, second vice chairman of the Alabama Farmers Federation State Catfish Committee. “Nearly all the country’s catfish is raised in Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, and almost every farmer out there has reduced production because we simply can’t compete [with Vietnam].”
To combat profit losses partially caused by imports, Wheeler said he’s tightened his costs in every area.
“High grain prices are killing us,” he explained. “Between high feed prices [caused by high grain prices] and low fish prices because of the foreign fish imports, we’re getting hit from two different directions. One hit is bad enough, but two is devastating. It seems we cut back again and again, but there’s really only so much you can cut back on and still run a successful farm.”
Wheeler reduced his workforce to one full-time and one part-time person, eliminating a night shift employee. He installed an oxygen monitoring system to save fuel and electricity. But there’s one thing he refuses to sacrifice.
“I won’t cut the quality of feed,” he said. “You can cut back all you want, but you can’t starve a profit out of a fish. Quality is everything.”
To stay afloat, Wheeler downsized his water acreage this year from 100 to 60 acres and dropped his stocking rate to 5,000 fish per acre.
“Is that the right choice? I don’t know,” he confessed. “I’m just trying to cut costs where I can and still be the best catfish farmer I know how.”
Wheeler isn’t the only farmer making cuts. Nationwide, catfish farmers slashed production acreage in half from nearly 164,000 water acres in 2007 to just 83,000 last year. Consequently, production dropped 35 percent, from 104 million pounds of fish to 67 million pounds those same years.
Weighing in at nearly 60 cents less per pound than U.S. farm-raised catfish, Vietnamese pangasius catfish flooded the market and slowed production for domestic farmers.
Recent congressional efforts, however, could spell good news for catfish farmers.
“Sen. Jeff Sessions has done us a service,” Wheeler said. “He pushed the Commerce Department to create and enforce an antidumping tariff on imports, which has needed to be done for quite some time. He also was helpful in getting the market rates changed so foreign fish aren’t nearly as cheap as they once were. In the past 30 days, foreign prices have gone up a dime, so the tariff is already helping.”
During his campaign for the tariff and pricing realignment, Sessions — a native of the Black Belt — said by enforcing the nation’s trade laws and fostering an environment that requires healthy competition, he was confident the state’s catfish farms would again be a market leader.
Alabama Farmers Federation Catfish Division Director Rick Oates said any boost is good for the state’s economy.
“People don’t realize just how important catfish farming is to our state and nation,” he explained. “Around 5,800 jobs in the state are dependent on the industry, which contributes $158.2 million to Alabama’s economy. It is a vital economic engine, especially along the Black Belt. We just hope consumers will make the right choice and buy U.S. farm-raised catfish. It’s delicious and, more importantly, safe for their families.”