The catfish industry in Alabama began in 1960 with the opening of a small channel catfish hatchery in Greensboro, Hale County, in west Alabama. Since that time, it has grown tremendously and has gone through many methodological and technological changes. Today, that growth has leveled off, and the industry is relatively stable. The income it brings to Alabama fish farmers and processors varies less dramatically from year to year than it did in its early years.
A number of environmental conditions in the South helped the industry succeed, including a long warm season, appropriate topography, water-retentive soil, and plentiful rainfall and river water to maintain ponds. Economic factors include low energy costs, good transportation systems, and the presence of Auburn University scientists and graduate students with expertise in fisheries. In addition, the channel catfish itself is well-suited for farming. The fish need only be fed once a day, because its large stomach will hold feed for hours, and it is highly adaptable to various living conditions.
The Alabama industry got its start when Hale County residents Chester O. "Check" Stephens, a feed salesman, and Richard True, a cattle and cotton farmer, decided to try hatching catfish fingerlings (young fish) for commercial purposes. Together with farmer Bryant Allen, they sought information and advice from experts. Researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had succeeded in breeding channel catfish in Oklahoma by injecting hormones into the fish and getting pairs to spawn (lay eggs) while contained in individual glass aquaria. The three men called their enterprise the STRAL Company, using the letters from their last names.
During the 1920s, fisheries experts in Kansas had helped pave the way for commercial production of catfish by developing hatching troughs and paddle wheels for aerating water in the troughs. True had two ponds and well water on his farm, and the men obtained brood fish, fertile adult females, and males, and put them in one of the ponds. The men built most of the equipment for their hatchery, including aquaria, spawning baskets, hatching troughs, and paddle wheels. Their first attempt at spawning catfish occurred in May 1961. Though the men made and learned from many mistakes, by the middle of July they had on hand nearly 50,000 fry (newly-hatched fish), which they transferred to the second pond.
By fall, the men needed to find markets for their fish. While traveling around selling feed, Stephens talked about the fish to anyone who would listen. Word spread quickly and raised curiosity among farmers and the general public about the new venture, and many people wanted to buy the fingerlings to grow for themselves or to start their own farms. With little experience in harvesting and transporting fish, the three men almost lost their harvest before it reached the customers. Gradually, however, the hatchery owners learned better methods. With loans, they bought better equipment and raised more fingerlings each year.
In 1967, Joe Glover, a Greensboro grocer who had bought and raised STRAL fingerlings, joined True and Stephens to form STRAL Processing Company. They harvested his catfish and skinned, cleaned, and sold them in Glover's meat market. The fish were popular with customers, and the business grew until so many fish were being processed that the men had to build a larger plant. STRAL was the first catfish processing company to skin the fish with a skinning machine. The skinned and cleaned catfish were sold to restaurants, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, and other businesses.
In the late 1960s, more and larger hatcheries and processing plants began to enter the business. These competitors were able to produce marketable products much more cheaply than STRAL, and in 1969, Stevens, True, and Glover sold their business to Nebraska Consolidated Mills, the company that later became the packaged food giant ConAgra. In 1970, Glover started his own processing business, Farm Fresh Catfish Company, which he operated until 1983. He introduced a number of improvements in catfish processing, including the addition of fileting. He also added a quality-control system to prevent fish with poor flavor from being sold. Glover built good relationships with the farmers from whom he bought fish and thus was able to convince them to raise fingerlings year-round and not just once a year. This change in practice made catfish available all year long, a requirement for increasing consumer demand for the fish.
Since the 1960s, Alabamians have established thousands of fish farms and a number of processing plants, but many failed. Before the 1970s, catfish were not viewed by the public as good to eat. Each time a new farm opened, the market was flooded with too many fish. The price would then drop so low that some farmers could not make enough money to cover their expenses. Since the 1970s, competition from cheaper imported catfish has caused prices to drop at times as well. When not enough fingerlings were available, they became expensive. In some years, problems with feed production raised the price of feeds so high that farmers either could not afford to feed their fish adequately or went further into debt.
Methods and technology used to hatch and grow catfish changed as the industry grew. In the 1970s, farmers changed the construction methods of their ponds, and began using machines to help with harvesting. In the early 1970s, two Auburn University graduates invented the grading sock, which enabled harvesters to choose what size fish they harvested. A newly introduced method known as topping off made it possible to harvest year-round and made catfish more available to consumers. Over the years between 1969 and the 1990s, researchers developed more nutritious feeds that enabled the fish to grow faster, bigger, and healthier, and farmers began stocking their ponds with more and more fingerlings.
As ponds became overcrowded, water quality suffered, and fish began to suffer from diseases. Larger numbers of fish consumed more oxygen and produced more waste, which in turn used up oxygen as it decomposed in the water. Often, this lack of oxygen caused tens of thousands of fish to die, especially during hot summer nights. By the early 1960s, researchers had developed an oxygen meter with which farmers could keep track of the dissolved oxygen in their ponds, but various efforts to better oxygenate the water all failed. Around 1975, Lenson Montz, a catfish farmer in Greensboro, and his brother-in-law, Otis Breland, built a paddle-wheel aerator that oxygenated the pond water effectively by creating a powerful current. Fish farmers in Alabama and in other states immediately built their own versions of it, and today virtually every catfish farm has paddle-wheels aeration.
Overcrowding in ponds also allowed diseases to thrive, and parasites and bacterial and viral infections resulted in heavy losses. Farmers treated the diseases with a variety of chemicals and antibiotics prior to the 1970s. During the 1970s, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared many of these chemicals, including some of the most effective ones such as nitrofurazone and malachite green, unapproved for use in aquaculture because of their potentially harmful effects on the environment, farmers, and consumers. Only a few remaining treatments were approved for use on food fish, mainly just table salt, or sodium chloride, for pond fish and iodine for eggs.
In the late 1960s, fisheries researchers began experimenting with a different way of growing catfish called cage production, in which catfish are raised in cages hanging in ponds. For farmers and other individuals in northeast Alabama, this method of raising the fish turned out to be particularly well suited. Not many farmers had tried raising catfish commercially in ponds there before. Constructing flat ponds that could be harvested with tractor-pulled seines was not practical in the hilly, northeastern part of the state, referred to sometimes as the Piedmont. Raising the fish in cages that could be accessed easily for harvesting made it possible for farmers in the Piedmont to have an additional source of income. A few farmers in other areas of the Southeast tried cage production also. Although this method proved to be successful in part of Alabama, the cage farmers found that they could not compete with the larger, pond-based catfish industry that was based primarily in west Alabama, which could raise and process the fish more economically. Cage production thus remained a small-scale industry.
Processing plants ranged from small companies operated by individuals or families to large plants, such as Joe Glover's Farm Fresh Catfish Company in Greensboro. Farm Fresh was sold in 1983 to a large meat-processing company and eventually moved out of state. Soon after the sale, Glover's son, Joe Jr., established Southern Pride Catfish Company, based in Demopolis and Greensboro, which became the leading U.S. processor. In 2003, it was sold to multinational seafood processor American Seafoods Group.
In the 1980s, mechanization gained a stronger foothold in the industry. Machinery was used to do much of the harvesting work that had previously been done by hand. Processing became more mechanized, as well as more automated. Fish were tested before they were processed, packaged, and sold, and poor flavor became less of a problem. During the early 1990s, Alabama processors implemented sanitation testing of their plants to assure consumers that the fish they had bought were safe to eat. By this time, farmers were stocking their fish year-round, and catfish had become much more accepted by consumers as a food fish.
Other changes helped strengthen the industry as well. At first, processors competed for customers through price wars. This caused economic problems for everyone involved in the industry, however. Gradually, processors came together cooperatively and in 1971 began forming marketing associations to promote catfish to consumers generically instead of by brand. In addition, the Alabama Fish Farming Center was established in Greensboro in 1983 by the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, the Soil Conservation Service, the Agricultural Experiment Stations, and efforts of local citizens. The center's purpose was to serve as a source of information on designing and managing ponds and keeping fish healthy. Around the same time, Alabama farmers organized themselves as a group to try to solve their common problems. They worked with state legislators to develop laws that dealt with a variety of problems, including imported catfish and predatory birds like herons and cormorants, which live in large groups around the ponds and feed on the fingerlings. These laws required that packages of farm-raised catfish be labeled as such, giving consumers the ability to choose Alabama raised fish over the wild, imported fish; and allowed farmers to shoot those birds they observed actively preying on their fish. Competition from imported, farm-raised catfish still poses problems for the industry.
Alabama's catfish industry totally changed the economy of west Alabama. By 2000, most residents of Hale County had jobs that were related in some way to catfish farming or processing. In 2007, approximately 23,700 acres of land were devoted to producing the fish, slightly more than the previous year but fewer than between 2003 to 2005. The number of farms, 199, was also up slightly from the 194 operating in 2006 but fewer than the 230 that existed between 2003 and 2005. The number of pounds of catfish processed for sale has gone down each year since a record high of 660 million pounds in 2003, but the prices that farmers have been selling the fish for in 2007 are almost higher than they have ever been. Altogether, the income of farmers and processors is estimated at around $488 million in 2007. That does not include the income of feed manufacturers, equipment suppliers, or other businesses in the state related to the catfish industry. The industry has become something much, much larger than it was when it started. The catfish farmers and producers, and all the people who worked with them, made important contributions to the state, to the nation, and to the world.
Perez, Karni. Fishing For Gold: The Story of Alabama's Catfish Industry. Tuscaloosa: Fire Ant Books, 2006.
Perez, Karni. Fishing For Gold: The Story of Alabama's Catfish Industry. Tuscaloosa: Fire Ant Books, 2006.