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Hooked on Catfish

The Mississippi Delta is catfish country, where Delta Pride Catfish Inc. is the big fish in the big pond

Catherine Merlo
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        You can get it blackened, fried, breaded, or grilled. You can order it whole, filleted, in nuggets or even as a steak. But, whichever you choose, just make sure it's catfish - particularly Delta Pride Catfish.        
        That's what the 160 members of Delta Pride Catfish, Inc. want you to remember the next time you crave a white, mild-flavored fish. It's what they want you to order when you sit down at any of the major restaurant chains that carry Delta Pride's farm-raised catfish. It's what they want wholesalers, food service institutions and retail customers to bear in mind when they stock their fish-product inventories.
        With the slogan, "The Freshest Name in Catfish," this catfish processing and marketing cooperative has helped turn the whiskered fish best known as a Deep South meal favorite into a multi-million dollar business that's spread far beyond the boundaries of the Mississippi Delta.
        "Farm-raised catfish is one of the country's five most popular seafood items and becoming more popular every day," says Walter Harrison, marketing manager for Delta Pride Catfish.catfish3.gif

        This 18-year-old co-op is a big reason why. Propelled by its goal of providing the freshest, highest-quality catfish on the market, Delta Pride is giving catfish a new reputation in culinary markets across the United States. It's building the Delta Pride Catfish name with its philosophy that quality and a dependable supply go together. And Delta Pride is bringing in new streams of income for its 160 farmer-members by creating value-added products for a fish once regarded only as a fried food.
        Based 25 miles east of the Mississippi River in Indianola, Miss., Delta Pride has become the market leader in the farm-raised catfish industry. It's not only the nation's largest processor of farm-raised catfish but also the largest processor of fresh-water fish in the world, processing 100 million pounds of live catfish every year. In 1997, the co-op's sales reached $110 million.

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Based in Indianola, Miss., Delta Pride is the world's largest processor of fresh-water fish. Its three plants process catfish into a variety of value-added products.

        In fact, Delta Pride is the ninth largest privately held company in Mississippi. "Delta Pride is big enough to handle any customer but small enough to take care of our customers and put out a quality product," says John Grant, president and CEO of the cooperative.

From cotton to catfish

        Before there were catfish farms across the Mississippi Delta, there was cotton, rice and soybeans. But increasing production costs, volatile prices, and decreasing profits began taking their toll on those crops several years ago, forcing Delta farmers to look for alternatives.
        "A lot of the land where the fish ponds now are just wasn't profitable for growing crops," says Jayne Dew, board chairman of Delta Pride Catfish and general manager of Farm Fish Inc., a 1,700-acre catfish fan-n in Louise, Miss. "But that land has now become a profit center for farmers," she says.
        Thanks to the advent of aquaculture, many Delta farmers began diversifying into catfish production in the 1960s. Delta Pride Catfish was conceived in 1980 by 119 Mississippi catfish farmers who were having trouble selling their products to local processors. To solve their problem, they formed Delta Pride. The co-op began its processing and marketing operations in 1981 under the Delta Pride label.
        "We take our members' fish and pay them a fair market price for it," Dew says. "We give them a home for their fish."
        The 160 member-stockholders of Delta Pride Catfish now control 65,000 acres of catfish ponds in Mississippi and Arkansas. That's about two-thirds of the catfish farm acreage in Mississippi, and half of the acreage in the United States. Each member has at least one share of stock for each acre of catfish in production.
        "The catfish is natural to this area," says Grant. "It's hardy, easy to breed, grows fast, and offers good conversion rates – it takes 21/2 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of fish."      

Fresh water for the manmade ponds is readily available from underground aquifers. "The water table around here is about 35 feet deep," Grant says. "Growers can pump 3,000 gallons per minute." catfish6.gif

A prolific water source is not the only necessity in raising catfish.  Water quality and proper oxygen levels are also critical.

        In addition to raising catfish, most co-op members also grow rice, soybeans, cotton or other crops. Growers build their own ponds or contract to have them constructed. Each pond is typically about 12 acres.
        Catfish are farmed under scientifically controlled conditions in the ponds, which are four to five feet deep. The fish are raised on a special feed of soybeans, corn, wheat, fishmeat, and essential vitamins and minerals. The food is in the form of floating pellets, which conditions the fish to feed on the surface.
        "This method of farming ensures that catfish will have a light-textured delicate taste with no fishy odor," says Harrison. "What you get is a fresh, almost sweet taste." Prior to harvest, catfish from a pond are sampled in a series of taste tests to make sure consumers receive a quality product.
        "Our farmer-owners pledge to maintain a dependable supply of farm-raised catfish and also to maintain relatively stable pricing," Harrison says.

Processing operations

        All of the membership's ponds are located within 50 miles of the co-op's three primary plants. These sites are critical to the goal of controlling product quality every step of the way from pond through delivery.

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Rising from the water, a mesh bucket filled with catfish will be lifted into aerated tanks and trucked to a Delta Pride processing plant.  A scale on the boom indicates the weight.

        The co-op's three state-of-the-art processing plants and 963 employees can process up to 3.5 million pounds of live fish per week. Together, they handle fresh and frozen catfish and process plenty of value-added products for the co-op, including breaded, marinated, and seasoned fish. Some fresh is sold fresh, some frozen, and some packaged to customer's requests. Delta Pride's best-selling product remains the catfish fillet.
        The co-op's largest processing plant is located in Indianola and can process 2 million pounds of live catfish a week. A second Delta Pride plant is located in Belzoni, 21 miles south of Indianola, where up to 1 million pounds of live catfish can be processed. Four miles south of Indianola, near Inverness, lies the co-op's third plant, Delta South. It handles all breading and specially packaged products.
        Since its first day of operation in 1981, Delta Pride has had full-time inspectors from the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Marine Fisheries Service, working alongside the company's Quality Assurance Department. Today, all Delta Pride plants operate under the Food and Drug Administration's inspection program.
        Delta Pride doesn't sell its catfish products directly to consumers. Instead, its customers include restaurant chains, food service institutions and others such as CostCo Wholesale and Sam's Wholesale, two major markets. In recent years, Delta Pride also has developed export markets in the Far East and Europe. The co-op's best-selling product remains the catfish fillet.
        Delta Pride relies on an extensive distribution system to deliver its catfish products to nationwide customers. Its own fleet of 33 long haul, refrigerated tractor trailers delivers to 32 states. The remaining 12 states are served by contract carriers.

Challenges

        Today, Delta Pride can boast a nationwide market of retail and food service customers. But success hasn't come easily.
        "Delta Pride had a lot of problems in the past," admits Dew, who's in her first year as board chairman. She points to numerous management changes at the coop, as many as five managers in 10 years. Delta Pride has had to stay up with equipment modernization, market development and product adjustments.
        When we started Delta Pride, we were one of about five catfish processors," Dew says. "Now there are 30 different catfish competitors," she says. (All 30, says Grant, are located within 100 miles of each other.)

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Heartland Catfish Inc., in Itta Bena Miss., is another major processor of catfish.

        "Back when Delta Pride started, all catfish was fried," says Dew. "Now, we've moved into baked, marinated, and seasoned products. And we have to advertise. We've had to branch out."
        To build its name and promote the possibilities of catfish cuisine, Delta Pride has utilized several merchandising techniques. It's created catfish recipes, market displays and other point-of-purchase materials. It produced a television commercial for its retail customers - a first in the fresh fish industry.
        But the co-op continues to wrestle with a challenge that faces all catfish processors in the South. "We have to get consumers past the preconceived idea that catfish is a 'scavenger' product," Dew says. "We have to get them to understand that farm-raised catfish is an excellent product."
        Not surprisingly, the biggest consumer base for catfish remains the South. In per-capita consumption, Arkansas leads the way, followed by Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. In sheer volume, Texas consumes the most catfish at 55 million pounds a year. Next are Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Florida.
        While Delta Pride looks to expand its markets further, it's already made a deep impact closer to home. The revenue the coop generates not only helps support its members but bolsters thousands of jobs throughout rural Mississippi.
        "This industry has fish hatcheries, feed mills, ponds and processing facilities across the Delta," says Grant. "Delta Pride sells fish all over the U.S. and brings that money here to this local economy We contribute a big part of the payroll in this area."
        Adds Dew, "In addition to Delta Pride's processing plants, there's also the impact on the farms We have 160 owners, and each farm employs eight to ten people. There's a real cumulative effect from Delta Pride."
        With that kind of economic flow, it's safe to say the catfish has become a state treasure in Mississippi. It may not be the prettiest animal around, but to the people of Delta Pride Catfish, there's nothing more beautiful. Now it's a matter of getting the rest of the world to see things their way.

Freshwater Farms: Generating more jobs from Mississippi catfish

        Delta Pride Catfish may be the world's biggest catfish processor but it's certainly not the only one. Catfish production is a major industry in Mississippi, and one Delta county in particular, Humphreys County, is known as the catfish capital of the world.
        "The biggest cash crop in Humphreys County is catfish production," says Larry E. Shurden, president of Freshwater Farms. "We've got more than 30,000 acres of catfish ponds."
        Headquartered in the heart of Humphreys County, Freshwater Farms Inc. is a small but growing catfish marketing and processing company.
        "This year, we'll do $22 million in sales," says Shurden. "In two years, we expect to do $30 million."
        With the help of a $2.5-million Business and Industry loan guarantee from USDA Rural Development, Freshwater Farms opened a state-of-the art catfish processing plant in 1997 near Belzoni. The company borrowed another $3 million from state, federal and local sources to build the 50,000-square-foot plant.
        Freshwater Farms now employs 210 local workers and processes some 25 catfish products, including whole fish, fillets, nuggets, strips, and steaks. Some 70 percent of the company's catfish is individually quick-frozen, and the rest is fresh ice-packed. But the company has plans for moving into the value-added arena.
        "We're just getting into processing breaded products," says Shurden, who is also a local John Deere dealer.
        Freshwater Farms sells its catfish products to wholesale distributors, restaurants, food-service institutions, even the military. Ninety percent of the company's sales are concentrated in 12 Southern and Western states.
        By the year 2000, Freshwater Farms expects to process 30 million pounds of fish a year.     
            Owned by 20 stockholders, Freshwater Farms started in 1982 as Humphreys County Catfish Processors Inc. In 1987, the company was re-organized and took on its current name. Within two years, sales jumped from $4 million to $12 million    
        "A lot of our stockholders also are stockholders of Delta Pride Catfish," says Shurden. "I think that's a matter of not putting all your eggs in one basket, of being more diversified. The catfish industry is extremely competitive."
        In fact, Shurden is concerned that many catfish producers and processors may not survive. "Profit margins are low," he says. "We've seen erratic pricing in the last year, with a 20-30 percent change in prices."
        But Freshwater Farms will be among the survivors, says Shurden. "We have the loyalty of our stockholders," he says.
        The survival of Freshwater Farms is critical to Humphreys County. About half of the County's population of 11,000 lives within a few miles of Belzoni, where many work for the catfish sector. A small rural town of 2,500 people, Belzoni lies 35 miles east of the winding Mississippi River. A large number of area residents are on welfare.
        "We provide steady employment at Freshwater Farms," says Shurden. "The average employee at Freshwater Farms is black, female and 35 years old. If we weren't there, a lot of our employees would have to move from the area or go on welfare."
        Adds Shurden, "Freshwater Farms provides economic opportunity for a lot of people.The money we generate turns over many times in our community."

 

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