CATFISH: A SOUTHERN CULTURAL ICON

Glen Chamblee wins Dumas Catfish Cook-Off, October 2003.This guy with the million dollar smile and the thousand dollar check is Glen Chamblee, owner of the Lakeside Cafe in Lake Village. Moments ago he was awarded that thousand dollar check for being the best catfish fryer who showed up at the annual Catfish Cook-Off in Dumas.

The contest is a way of drawing the best catfish chefs from the area to cook for a town fund raiser. After the judging, all the entrants are required to stay and fry up to-go catfish box lunches which are sold for seven dollars per. Last year they sold 1300 box lunches in this town of 5520.

The rules are pretty narrowly defined. For one thing, the contest is for deep fried catfish only, no baked, no broiled, no poached, no grilled, no sauteed. Fillets only, no steaks, no flakes, no whole fish, no McNuggets. All fillets are Arkansas farm-raised channel catfish provided by the Dumas Main Street festival outfit. Peanut oil is provided, but you can bring your own if your secret family recipe requires some other kind of oil.

Show up with fifty bucks and deep-fry paraphernalia with a minimum 1.5 gallon capacity and you're in the contest. The contest is run on a show-and-go basis. There's no advance entry and no reserved space. For your entry fee you get four identical 3x5-inch catfish fillets, a number, a space and a time. When your time rolls around, have your fish plated and ready to be whisked off to a remote location, where five judges will evaluate your efforts on the basis of taste, texture and appearance.

Judging Table at Dumas Catfish Cook-OffSpeaking of the judges, here they are. On the left is the food editor for the Arkansas Democrat/Gazette. Just behind her in the white shirt is the editor of The Catfish Journal, the primary trade publication for the catfish industry. The guy in the blue cap is head of the American Catfish Growers Association. Obscured by the lady in the red T-shirt is an agri-academic from the U. of A. at Monticello. He's also got something to do with the Office of Economic Development. The black guy is on the staff of U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln.

What these five agreed on was that good catfish tastes like catfish and not like marinades, herbs and spices. Mind you there is some degree of fashion and regional variation at play. For example, twenty years ago fillets were rarer than they are today. Although they are boneless, they represent only about 35% of the live weight of a fish. Processing the fish into steaks or whole-cleaned-skinned converts much more of the fish to edible meat, although these thicker cuts are harder to quick-freeze and the meat must be picked carefully from the bones. I read a newspaper survey of catfish restaurants that there is still some demand for catfish steaks in Arkansas and Louisianna, and that still in parts of Georgia and Alabama the preferred way to eat catfish is fried whole; but for the most part the fillets have taken over the market.

The oil imparts a flavor to the fish, and every source tells me that peanut oil is traditional. (Personally I think peanut oil makes the fish taste a little heavy. I go for corn or soybean oil.) The final traditional ingredient is corn meal -- period. Flour batter (English fish-and-chips style) is absolutely the wrong way to go with catfish because of its very moist flesh. Flour batter traps that moisture in. Corn meal draws moisture out of the flesh and makes it cook up flaky and tender. When I asked the table of judges if anybody had ever competed in the cook-off using a flour-and-egg batter, they looked at me in dumbstruck silence as if I were from Mars or even New Jersey. This group of judges (with a traditionalist culinary agenda I suspect instigated by the food editor of the ArDemGaz) was dead set against spiced cornmeal, too. That preference varies from time to time and place to place. Not so long ago in a catfish cook-off in Little Rock, two of the top three prizes went to hot chili pepper recipes. Some years Cajun is in. Some years Cajun is out.

A quick Google search of restaurants with the word "catfish" in the name yielded 79 in Arkansas, one in New York and one in New Jersey. And the one in New York was apparently the nickname of the chef and might not even serve catfish. In addition to the 79 Arkansas listings, I personally know of several catfish restaurants that don't have the word "catfish" in the name, and I know of many otherwise generic fare restaurants that specialize in catfish one or two days a week. On the right is a catfish restaurant done up to look like a riverboat in Des Arc where the road meets the river. This town of two thousand has a catfish "shack" that seats three hundred. They're not eating snapper, cod, haddock, tuna, swordfish or fugu even though those fish can be had here. They're eating catfish and lots of it.

So I look at those numbers for New York and New Jersey and I see a huge untapped market of people who just don't know what they're missing, and who are depriving themselves of some mighty good food out of regional prejudice and nothing but. Plus, catfish isn't kosher because it doesn't have scales. My newly revised Raelian bible says that if a Jew so much as touches a catfish he has to strip naked, hop up and down on one leg and wash his hands in borax. Okay, I made up the stuff about the Raelian translation of the bible, but Leviticus does say that fish without scales are an abomination before the Lord and that might reduce the appeal of catfish in New York and New Jersey. Come to think of it for all of our history starting with De Soto in 1541 the three cultural constants of Arkansas have been pork, catfish and humidity. This place is like kryptonite for Jews. No wonder they despise us.

CATFISH CULTURE

While the paragraph above is a little smart alecky, your average Yankee is prejudiced against catfish and Leviticus is a good part of the reason -- but only one part. Catfish is associated with the south and with poverty even though perfectly edible blue and channel cats live as far north as Canada. The same northerners who think of catfish as nasty rough fish prefer to eat striped bass which doesn't taste as good. They inappropriately and incorrectly malign the catfish as a "bottom dweller" and then they eat lobsters and clams. They eat eels, which scavenge much the same as do catfish. And by the way, there are about 2200 species of catfish worldwide, and only some of them are scavengers.

Those cultural associations come partly from climate. In warm waters catfish grow fast. A year-old catfish can be a two pounder down here where the hot sun warms the shallow delta oxbow lakes to bathwater temperatures. Go up to a deepwater lake in Pennsylvania where the fish lurk beneath the thermocline in fifty degree water and that year old fish weighs in at under a pound. This makes for a food resource that's twice as renewable down here as it is up there.

Catfish are also easy to catch. With a little practice and a lot of balls, you can even wade into the water and pick up wild catfish with your hands. Bear in mind that the pectoral fins of a catfish are as sharp as scout knives and and if mishandled, a five pound catfish can snatch the skin off your thumb with its mouth. Fishing this way is called "noodling" or "hogging," and it carries with it the obvious dangers of groping blindly bare-handed in muddy swamp water. It's a cheap way of getting big fish, but the learning curve can be physically treacherous and obviously it can only be accomplished in waist deep lakes like those commonly found in the Mississippi River alluvial plain. Therefore, a poor delta sharecropper who has no money and no fishing gear and needs a lot of food can wade into a swamp and drag out a fifteen pound catfish. Catfish was cheap, convenient, plentiful and easily harvested in the south. That's what the poor could eat so that's what they ate.

Corn and peanuts were among the earliest crops in the American South. Corn was grown by the indians and peanuts were introduced from Africa. Like okra and watermelons (also introduced from Africa), they were originally grown as fodder for slaves. So the tradition of corn meal and peanut oil originated from the same convenience as did catfish. Deep frying is a way of cooking a lot of food in a hurry and serving it all steaming hot simultaneously. Deep frying in corn meal makes anything into a dandy finger food with a piping hot inside insulated by a crust that's cool enough to handle. All you need is a paper plate. No silverware to clean up or keep track of. Wipe your hands on your pants when you're done. If you've got a crew of twenty or thirty hoe boys chopping cotton and it's lunch time and you want them fed and back in the field ASAP, deep frying catfish does that for you. If you've got a church social and want to feed everybody at the same time, deep frying catfish, french fries and hush puppies does that for you. If you're grilling burgers for everybody, you've always got some people eating and some hungry people watching some people eat. As a result, catfish became a traditional social meal with traditionally mass prepared side-dishes of slaw, beans, fries, hush puppies and pickled green tomatoes. That's why southerners have the catfish restaurants and that's why so many southern restaurants have a catfish night.

I have to disagree with the tartar sauce as a traditional catfish condiment. That's something that's been added since the 1950's. Tartar sauce made from raw eggs is not something you'd leave out on a picnic table all afternoon during a fish fry in the summer in the south. I don't want to talk anybody out of using tartar sauce if that's what they like, but by tradition lemon juice goes on fried catfish. Vinegar will do in a pinch.

This year's big cook off entries were almost all pros, either restaurant owners or catfish farmers; and they all had customized high-performance overhung underslung specially fabricated (read that "home made") cooking gear cobbled together from whatever could be found. Don't bother looking for any Underwriters Laboratories stickers on these babies.

With timing so critical in a cooking contest, proper oil temperature is essential. Most of the contestants had thermometers in the oil, but some used the old dependable match head method. When the oil starts to get hot you float a match head on the surface. When the match head ignites, the oil is the right temperature for cooking.

CATFISH SCIENCE

Here's a catfish swimming among the bluegill in the aquarium at the Mid America Museum in Hot Springs. This is a channel cat, the kind catfish farmers raise. The easiest way to tell catfish species apart is by the anal fin. The channel catfish has a rounded, fan shaped fin like this one. The blue catfish has an anal fin that is more square and sharply cut. The flat head catfish has an anal fin that is club shaped. Catfishanoddoes prefer the fluffy snow white meat of blue cat to that of the channel cat; but blue is rarely farmed because it is more difficult to raise. When startled, the fingerlings school into a tight clump, making them easy prey for herons, egrets and the voracious-but-legally-protected cormorants. They also do best in clear water with a strong current, conditions which are hard to replicate in a farm pond. So if you want blue cat, that's a special order and it's going to cost you.

Flathead catfish are predators. Live food only. If they've ever tasted a minnow they won't touch those vegetable pellets the farmer feeds them. Bullhead catfish are also good to eat, but they never get bigger than a pound and a half, so they're not economical to raise. Flathead and bullhead are perfectly good table fish taken from the wild.

Channell Catfish Display, Delta Regional Wildlife Center, Pine Bluff
Specially modified channel catfish with port side maintenance hatch to facilitate refitting and upgrades. (Catfish Anatomy Display from Delta Regional Wildlife Center in Pine Bluff)

Catfish are jam packed with sensory organs and superpowers -- animal world high-tech options that come as standard gear on catfish. They have venom cells in the skin covering the dorsal and pectoral spines. They see in color. The skin (fins, tail and all) is covered with taste buds vastly more tightly spaced than those on your own tongue. The barbels, those whisker structures that give the catfish its name, are more sensitive than a bloodhound's nose. Bass and trout hear from 40Hz to 10kHz. A catfish's hearing goes up to 13kHz. A catfish's lateral line is so sensitive to low frequencies that a pond full can recognize the footsteps of a farmer carrying a sack of catfish chow a hundred yards away and will rise to the surface in anticipation of being fed. At very close range a catfish can "see" grubs and larvae through mud and leaves by sensing the electrical fields generated by living things the way an electric eel does. All these things allow the catfish to thrive in water that would leave other species groping blind.

Eight percent of all fish species are catfish. At the risk of sounding like the Monty Python "cheese shop" sketch, there are transparent asian catfish, electric african catfish, south american talking catfish, toothless blind white subterranean catfish, parasitic catfish and even a catfish that can leave his pond and walk up to a quarter mile on dry land in search of a better pond.

If you're interested in catfish science, here's a catfish scientist. His name is Dr. Nathan Stone, and he teaches aquaculture and conducts research at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Aquaculture Extension. If you want an advanced degree in aquaculture in the U.S. you can go here or maybe a half dozen other places. Dr. Stone is standing amid some experimental intensive culture pools, which might some day come in handy in situations where space is minimal but energy is plentiful. Those thrashing drums aerate the water and induce a current which allows rapid reproduction of phytoplankton which feed the very fecund tilapia which in turn are eaten by catfish. The folks at UAPB are also experimenting with freshwater shrimp in these here pools.

You might think one catfish laboratory would cover the needs of a small state like Arkansas. You'd be wrong. Not only do we have a state catfish lab in Pine Bluff, we also have a federal catfish lab in Stuttgart. I went to tour that place, too, but I was not allowed past the front desk on account of our present state of emergency. I don't think anybody's really afraid the evildoers will try to steal our sensitive catfish technology, but as a matter of policy all federal facilities are under tightened security. All is not lost, though. They have a website and you can visit that. Here's a link.

CATFISH LAW

Bass fishing is a big money sport here in Arkansas, but you can't start a fistfight over bass the way you can over catfish. The subject is as serious as a shotgun at a wedding. For instance, markets and restaurants may only sell fish from the family Ictaluridae as catfish. Ictaluridae includes all North American freshwater catfish, 43 species, most of which are minnow sized madtoms. Misrepresenting imported Asian or saltwater catfish on your restaurant's menu as "catfish" draws a fine of $500 to $1000. Get caught three times in three years and your fine runs up to $2500.

In the world of science there are 2200 kinds of catfish. In the Arkansas Code (20-61-302) there are four. They are 1) Farm Raised Catfish 2) River or Lake Catfish 3) Imported Catfish and 4) Ocean Catfish. These legal distinctions and labeling laws were proposed and promoted by the producers of Category 1 Catfish. It was opposed by the restaurant and hotel industry. It was opposed by the commercial fishermen and by the importers and by the markets. Governor Bill Clinton, who agreed with the restaurants and hotels about the inconvenience of reprinting menus every time the source of catfish changed, refused to sign the bill into law. It was reintroduced and signed into law by Governor Frank White. Frank White was the governor who split Bill Clinton's administration into a "before" and "after." During his tenure, Frank White did a lot of two things -- he vacationed and he signed a lot of stuff Clinton had vetoed.

There's an Arkansas Catfish Promotion Board (Arkansas Code 2-9-103) appointed by the governor from candidates nominated by the Catfish Farmers of Arkansas and the Farm Bureau Federation who hand out grants for scientific and market research and such like. The money comes from a tax on Fish Feed. On top of that we've got Catfish Industry Development Program (Arkansas Code 15-5-805) under the governor and the Arkansas Development Finance Authority. These guys arrange credit for catfish farmers, processors and feed mills.

Big Gamefish Display, Delta Regional Wildlife Center, Pine Bluff
Flathead Catfish upper right.

Under Arkansas law, catfish is defined as "livestock," so theft of catfish from a farmer's pond carries with it the same penalties as cattle rustling. On the other hand, the catfish farmers want catfish to be classified as a "crop" by the Department of Agriculture so that catfish farmers will be eligible for participation in entitlement programs like federally subsidized crop insurance and flood insurance.

You might think flooding wouldn't be a problem for a catfish farmer. "Heaven help us! Our ponds are full of water!" I was surprised to learn that flooding is actually more devastating to a catfish farmer than to a row crop farmer. Flooding will silt up your expensive ponds, clog drainage pipes, wash away levees, dump numberless wild pathogens from the nearby rivers into your carefully manicured aquatic environment, and last but not least allow your livestock to swim away.

CATFISH ECONOMICS

The economics of catfish farming can be brutal for the farmer. The price of catfish "at the pond" has over the past 25 years seldom gone above 70 cents a pound or below 60 cents a pound. That's about a fifteen percent range, but the price can swing wildly and spike high and low. The cost to make a pound of flopping wet catfish has pretty much held steady just around the 60 cent-a-pound point over that same time.

Getting into the catfish farming business ain't cheap. Building ponds, levees and drainage costs about $3000 an acre. Ponds are sized based on ease of harvest and efficiency. A large pond allows economy of scale. That doesn't help you if you don't have a seine that can reach all the way across it. One disease, parasite, algal or bacterial bloom can ruin an entire pond, so a series of small ponds allows you to compartmentalize your risks. More individuated ponds means you have to build more levees and more drainage, thus incurring more cost per acre. Catfish ponds tend to have about two to five acres of surface.

Joe Hogan National Fish Hatchery near Lonoke
Joe Hogan National Fish Hatchery near Lonoke looks like a pretty typical fish farm. Some places in Mississippi will look like a checkerboard of these ponds stretching to the horizon.

So lets say you invest $15,000 and build one five acre pond. That's not your only expense, of course. Your five acre pond will consume upwards of $20,000 in fish food and medicine a year. So you're in the hole upwards of $35,000 before you make your first crop. That doesn't include the cost of the stocking fry. And if you were thinking of making a living at this, you might multiply your initial debt by a factor of ten or even twenty. Oh yeah, says Mr. Haney, if you think some water might look nice in that pond you're going to have to spring for a new well. Otherwise an August drought might leave you with several tons of sun dried catfish. What about machinery? You can't just dump a bag of feed into a pile at the shoreline and figure the catfish are going to file past cafeteria style. The competition will result in some big fish and some runts. No, you have to buy a machine that launches fish pellets like snow from a blower all across the pond so all your livestock get to eat and grow to the uniform size that the restaurants prefer. There are countless extra startup expenses like that.

Here's a worst case scenario. In 1994, farmers were enjoying fat times with catfish at 78.4 cents a pound. Encouraged by the lure of big money, you invest $15,000 and build a five acre pond figuring on harvesting four tons per acre, which is the low end of a professional harvest. Theoretically you'll be clearing a little over $5,000 a year on your pond. It'll be paid for in three years and then you'll have a steady supplementary income, right?

Not so fast. As they say in Louisianna, "Hole it rat deah." With catfish prices so high, everybody in the delta had the same idea at the same time back in 1994. In 2002 there's a glut, with production costs at 65 cents a pound farmers getting 55.8 cents a pound. So if you sell your fish now you're losing money. You can delay your harvest indefinitely, the fish will only get bigger. But they still have to be fed, and every day they sit in the pond brings the chance of a flood or a parasite infestation or hamburger gill disease or any number of other fish farming catastrophes which could turn a partially lost crop into a total failure.

By the way, you borrowed that $15k to build that pond and you have payments to make. You were hoping to pay off the pond in three years, but if the wholesale price stays below the cost of production you could be in debt indefinitely, or until the bank decides to foreclose. The interest is just piling up and you can't possibly predict when the price might rise again. Even if you got one of the interest-free Department of Economic Development loans, you've still got debt and you still have to make payments. Unfortunately for all the guys who started in 1994, the only thing that's going to reduce the supply and drive prices back up is if somebody goes broke and stops producing. The guys most likely to go broke are the guys with the most inelastic expenses, the most debt. The new guys.

There's more bad news. Suppose you grow your fish for another year and the price rises so that you can make a profit. Strange though it might seem, the processor might reject the whole crop for being too big. Restaurants want fillets of a certain uniform size. Catfish of 1.5-2 pounds can be cut into fillets that make handy finger food strips. Fish of 2-2.5 pounds dress out as planks that fit nicely on a dinner plate, good for grilling and baking. Since restaurants account for the lion's share of the market, your jumbo fish might have to be sold at a discount. Those fillets can be trimmed to the optimal size, of course, but you've spent two years worth of expenses to create optimal one-year-old sized fillets. What happens to the trimmings? Sold at a discount.

While we're at it, here's another disturbing economic statistic. In 1981, the cost of catfish at the pond was 80 cents a pound and catfish steaks were sold in the supermarkets at $1.40 a pound. Today catfish at the pond is about 60 cents a pound and the price of catfish steaks in the store is about $4.50 a pound. The wholesale price is 30% lower, but the retail price is 300% higher! What's happening to all that extra money that catfish eaters are spending? I had to infer the current price of catfish steaks from the observed price of $5.00 a pound for catfish fillets. Also, on Thanksgiving eve I found catfish fillets on sale for $3.00 a pound. That price is rare, but even if that were the regular price, the middlemen are still taking more out of the industry than they were twenty years ago. The fact that fillets ranged from $5 to $3 within eight weeks suggests that there's considerable elasticity in the price of catfish, ensuring that catfish will ever be fifty cents a pound cheaper than the second cheapest fish in the seafood case.

As unattractive as I've made aquaculture seem, American catfish farmers in 2002 were raising 597,000,000 pounds of channel catfish in 197,000 acres of ponds. Mississippi accounts for about half of that total. Arkansas, Alabama and Louisianna grow most of the rest. Year after year, a couple hundred Arkansans beat the odds and and make enough to raise catfish the next year. Here's one of those places. I took about a hundred pictures in two visits to this place, and like the hundred or so other Arkansas catfish farms it's just not photographically all that interesting. There are a couple dozen ponds laid out on a grid. There are a half dozen buildings. A lot of cinder block and steel siding. Metal roofs. The interest is on the inside. It's Dorey Fish Farm in Leola (870-765-2749), and they've got supplemental income from operations ancillary to the catfish farm.

First and foremost they've got a catfish restaurant right there on the farm. If you like your fish fresh, this is where you can go to get that. Even if you throw like a girl you can keep one hand on the restaurant and chunk a rock into a catfish pond. Given that Leola, Arkansas is even by Arkansas standards the middle of nowhere, and Dorey's is several miles outside of Leola, and given that I visited on a day in August that was so miserably hot that they had a soaker hose washing down the air conditioner coils the restaurant was so busy that I had to wait a half hour before I could get Tudy Dorey to pose for this picture.

This is Tudy Dorey standing by the jukebox in the 1950's room of her restaurant. There are in fact two pictures of Tudy Dorey here. See that picture on the wall above the jukebox? The guy in the uniform is Elvis Presley returning from Germany on his very first leave from the army. You'll recognize Graceland's front gate in the background. This picture was widely reproduced in newspapers throughout the country. See that girl in the striped top, the one cradled under The King's left arm? That's Tudy enjoying her fifteen minutes of fame.

The Doreys generate some income selling bulk frozen catfish right there on the spot at somewhat lower than store prices. If you have some space in your chest freezer you can save enough on frozen catfish to pay for the drive down from Little Rock. And then they make a few bucks on their pay lake.

A pay lake is fishing for kids and tourists and cheapskates. You throw in your hook and line and you pay for what you catch. I think the going rate was a buck a pound. This is a good way for the catfish farmer to dispose of those undesirable three-pound-and-up fish I mentioned earlier. The frugal fisherman cleaning his own catch can get catfish meat for something like $2.50 a pound. Tourists can fish for a couple of hours without having to buy one of those expensive weekend out-of-state licenses from the AGFC. This is a good way to introduce kids to fishing because they're darn near guaranteed to catch something and it's probably going to be pretty big. The Dorey's also have picnic tables, a playground, a giant petrified tree trunk on display, all contributing to a park atmosphere and all aimed at offering visitors more reasons to show up and more ways to spend money. This is what catfish farmers sometimes do in order to make ends meet.

Practically nobody is a catfish farmer only. In order to make money and protect yourself from price fluctuations, you have to be in a position to sell to yourself. If the price of feed goes up, it's good to be a partner in the feed mill co-op. That way you get the extra money from the sale of feed and simultaneously you get to deduct the increased price of feed from the profit on your fish farm. If you're also a partner in a processing co-op, you have even more accounting flexibility. Taking a loss on your fish might mean cheap raw materials, thus increased profits, for your processing plant. A lot of these farmers hedge their bets by keeping one windmill aimed at each point of the compass.

CATFISH POLITICS

The Vietnam War got refought here recently between the Mekong and Mississippi Deltas. This time the fight was over catfish imported from Vietnam, which sent us 130K pounds in 1996 and then by 2001 was sending us 12.5M pounds at prices lower than U.S. farm raised catfish. The price of the imports was low because the Vietnamese had little overhead, raising their fish in cages suspended in rivers rather than in environmentally controlled purpose-built ponds. They didn't have to incur debt or build expensive ponds and levees. They're not paying anything in labor since these are individuals working on a small scale with low-tech techniques. Basically these are numerous individuals living on the river or in houseboats and raising a few thousand pounds each right there at the back porch. They don't have to feed so much because there's natural nutrition in the river.

At least that was the position of the Vietnamese. The position of the politicians from the catfish producing states was that the Vietnamese were illegally appropriating the hard won and expensively cultivated cachet of the word "catfish" to sell their imported, phony and subversive product as if it were as wholesome and patriotic as our stuff. After all, these imported fish were grown in the Mekong River which, according to southern congressmen, was polluted with agent orange. (It took decades to persuade anybody that agent orange might cause health problems in veterans, but catfish somehow get attention right away.) The same politicians accused the Vietnamese of dumping product at prices below production cost. They demanded a "dumping tax" of 200%. They eventually got tariffs on imported catfish ranging from 37% to 64%, depending on the importer.

The growers really had a point. They had invested decades and millions of dollars persuading people to eat this fish against which there had accumulated a century of prejudice. Along come these importers, who had invested nothing in building this market, with their cheap fish wanting to sell it as equivalent to the domestic stock. If the Vietnamese had ponied up the cash for the promotion of the product over the past thirty years, and if the Vietnamese had to conform to the same environmental regulations as our farmers and if the Vietnamese had to pay minimum wage to their hired workers maybe their fish wouldn't be so cheap.

The Vietnamese also had a point. If I've got a grip on my Perlman and Kitch, you can't patent the word "catfish" any more than you can patent the words "corn bread." Over the last couple of hundred years, science has pretty well worked out fish taxonomy and a fish is either a catfish or not a catfish. So if they stamp their boxes "Catfish," nobody can honestly say that's deceptive. And isn't competition the American Way? Doesn't Wal-Mart put people out of business by selling for less? They said the Americans were a bunch of crybabies who only liked to play games that are fixed in their favor. Where's all that free and fair market horseshit the Americans were spouting when they were trying to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese? Who's the communist country here, anyway? And by the way, from 2001-2002 the INCREASE in production in Mississippi alone was about the same as the TOTAL imports from Vietnam, so Mississippi is just as much to blame for the present glut as Vietnam.

So the Vietnamese importers offered to label their stuff, "Vietnamese Catfish," "Mekong Catfish," "Basa Catfish," "Pangas Catfish," "Basa," "Basa Bocourti," "Bocourti," and maybe some others in hopes of avoiding tariffs that would equalize prices in the seafood case. They also offered to stamp each package "Product of Vietnam." The Americans didn't go for it. Ever distrustful, they claimed that the Vietnamese labels mimicked the style and typeface of established American labels and the Americans also wanted some way of assuring that unscrupulous importers would not repackage imported fish as U.S. farm-raised channel catfish.

The FDA decided that there was no good reason to limit the use of the word "catfish" to a single species. The lawmakers disagreed. In 2002, 400 pages into a giant farm bill is a provision extending a 2001 measure that the use of the word "catfish" may only be applied to channel catfish.

Not all public discourse on this topic is so contentious. Back in 1995 there was a grass roots move to make catfish the state fish of Arkansas. A bunch of grade schoolers from the Jonesboro area put the project together as a class in order to follow the process of how a bill becomes a law. The kids enlisted their local congressman to sponsor the bill. They came to Little Rock where they lobbied, demonstrated and sang rap songs in favor of the measure. The bill was defeated, but not before maneuvering its educational way through the entire process.

CATFISH HISTORY

There is a hypothetical point at which a farmer who has a cattle pond stocked with catfish becomes a catfish farmer. That's the point where the fish become no longer incidental to the stock pond, but the farmer deliberately cultivates, breeds and feeds the fish for sale as a source of table meat. The first man to cross that point was Edgar "Chip" Farmer. Edgar has passed away; but pictured here, a contestant at the Main Street Dumas Catfish Cook-Off, is his son Harold. If you have much dealing with catfish farming, you'll meet a lot of people named Farmer. The guy who guided my tour through the ArKat catfish feed mill was John Farmer, Edgar's grandson and Harold's nephew. Harold related to me the story of how his dad became the very first catfish farmer.

People had been deliberately growing fish in ponds worldwide for centuries. Aquaculture itself was nothing new. Before the 1950's the thought of raising catfish as a food crop would have been absurd. The rivers were filled with big, easy-to-catch catfish growing just fine without help from anybody. After the second World War industry expanded and more rivers became polluted, destroying striped bass populations and fisheries in the north. Hydroelectric dams and drainage projects destroyed natural fisheries and blocked migration routes to salmon rookeries. The government destroyed a cheap, plentiful and naturally renewing food supply in order to create cheap, plentiful privatized electricity. An increasing population and new industrial fishing methods stressed offshore supplies of tuna, cod and haddock. As the price of fish went up, the lowly catfish started to look like a pretty marketable alternative and commercial fishermen started netting them from the rivers. Eventually some folks connected one more dot and decided that if they could grow catfish on their own land in conveniently sized ponds they wouldn't have to invest in a boat and they wouldn't have to worry about another fisherman beating them to their favorite fishin' hole.

Buffalo Fishing at Rivervale
Bowfishing for buffalo at Rivervale, the only place I know where two rivers cross without mixing.

I got a story from Dr. Stone that back in the fifties after a flood up in the Lonoke area, a farmer found hundreds of Buffalo (regional delicacy, a kind of carp named for its humped back, see photo, right) had moved from the river into a rice irrigation pond. When he drained the pond he sold the fish. The Game and Fish Commission sued him, claiming that those fish belonged to the state. The court ruled in favor of the farmer.

So the next step was to do the same thing, only deliberately. Some used their irrigation ponds. Others built temporary ponds by bulldozing a berm around a fallow rice field. Buffalo stocked in these temporary ponds would feed on weeds, algae and rice stubble. Edgar Farmer stocked catfish along with his buffalo and noticed that although the buffalo grew well under those conditions, the catfish put on very little weight over the course of a season. Catfish just aren't grazers.

A number of catfish feeding techniques were tried by various researchers. In one experiment, electric lights were suspended over the ponds to attract insects upon which the catfish would feed. Commercial dog food was another option. Minnows which breed naturally in flooded rice fields didn't reproduce fast enough to feed a substantial crop of catfish. Raising crawdads in tandem with catfish helped, but a pound of crawfish is worth more than a pound of catfish, and it takes more than a pound of crawfish to put a pound on a catfish, so crawfish/catfish polyculture was a dead end. Besides which, if you're raising enough crawfish to feed thousands of catfish, their burrows will be numerous enough degrade the structural integrity of levees. In the 1930's and 1940's all kinds of ingredients were tried, cheese, dried buttermilk, fish meal, cottonseed meal, ground goldfish, ground liver. Nothing worked really well until a scientist named Jewell discovered that vitamin D was an essential catfish nutrient.

Pelleted catfish feed began with Dr. Homer Swingle at Auburn University, who developed early recipes in 1948. For about ten years there were commercial catfish farms, particularly in Kansas, but the crop was sold to recreational lakes. The fish were not generally harvested, processed and sold to stores and restaurants.

Another key technique in catfish farming was the trick of making catfish spawn when you want them to. If you're trying to run a business, you can't wait around for the catfish to find true love all on their own. You want the eggs in the bucket, you want the sperm in the bucket, on schedule, preferably during office hours. The procedure for getting channel catfish to do this was worked out between WWI and WWII. Scientists were cooking up ways to get this done with trout and salmon and bass along with other commercial and recreational fish. So while they were on a roll, they figured out how to do it for channel cats.

The guy credited with putting all these elements together (spawning on demand, pelleted food, purpose-built ponds, processing for human consumption) is Edgar Farmer of southeast Arkansas. He did not invent these techniques, but he collected the stuff that worked from here and there and assembled modern catfish aquaculture. He obtained from Swingle a catfish feed recipe based on soy and corn, two ingredients cheap and abundant in the Arkansas delta. Farmer took the recipe to a feed mill in Little Rock. The first crop yielded 2000 fish. There are other guys in the same area who were working on similar projects at the same time, and certainly also deserve to be recognized as catfish farming pioneers. Two prominent influences are B.G. McCulley and Ben Nelson.

So what happened to all the interest in buffalo? It turns out that buffalo doesn't respond well to conventional food preservation techniques. It doesn't store well. It doesn't ship well. And it's easy to cook it wrong. I've never eaten buffalo, but I was told by the guys in the picture above, that buffalo has to be eaten hot from the skillet. If you let it sit fifteen minutes on a platter and then try to eat it, you're asking for trouble. I was also told by more than one catfish farmer that buffalo is one of those foods, like roasted chestnuts, that you crave maybe once or twice a year at certain seasons, whereas catfish is a year-round food. So as easy as buffalo are to raise, the market is regional and sporadic.

While catfish may be frozen and shipped anywhere on earth to be enjoyed, the center of production is likely to remain where it is right now. In addition to the favorably warm climate, the delta (not geologically a delta, more properly an alluvial plain) is structurally better suited than any other place in the hemisphere for the construction of shallow ponds. Just a few feet below the surface there runs a hard pan of clay that keeps water from seeping out of the pond. There's also a high water table so wells to fill those ponds don't have to be all that deep and don't have to be used all that often. These are important advantages in a world where fresh water becomes ever more expensive. The same features that make our fields good for rice also make them good for catfish. Very much like Vietnam, but then we've already covered that material.

RTJ--12/1/2003

Sources:

Collins, Charles "Bo;" pers. comm. 26 Sep 2003 and 2 Oct, 2003.

Day, Tonya, Director of Main Street Dumas Catfish Cook-Off, pers. comm. 26 Sep, 2003 and 2 Oct, 2003.

Farmer, Harold; pers. comm. 2 Oct, 2003.

Farmer, John; Arkat feed mill tour. 2 Oct, 2003.

Stone, Dr. Nathan, UAPB Aquaculture department, pers. comm. Oct, 2003.

Sutton, Keith; Fishing for Catfish, Creative Publishing International, Minnetonka, MN 1998.

Thomas, Maria and Carole Engle, Consumer Acceptance of Canned Bighead Carp, Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Arkansas, Report Series 328, June 1995.

Wellborn, Thomas L.; A Brief History of the Channel Catfish Industry; Presented at the 1990 Annual Meeting of Catfish Farmers of Mississippi, obtained from Charles Collins of the Arkansas Catfish Growers Association.

Arkansas Democrat/Gazette and Arkansas Gazette articles (date sectionpage:column): 9/5/03business, 7/26/03front, 7/24/03business, 5/2/03business,10/17/02style, 10/13/02three rivers, 7/18/02business, 6/25/02arkansas, 6/16/02business, 5/23/02business, 5/9/02front, 4/16/02business,10/5/01A6, 7/18/01D1, 12/28/00B3, 5/2/00B7, 2/15/00B1, 12/1/99D1, 7/25/99C14, 5/2/99C10, 11/21/97E4, 7/27/97BM23, 4/30/95G1, 3/3/95B10, 3/2/95B5, 9/6/94B3, 7/2/94A1, 5/26/94C8, 2/14/92D1:2, 4/19/92G1:2, 4/3/92D1:5, 1/24/91C1:22/7/91C1:5, 2/7/91C8:4, 3/17/91F2:5, 3/28/91C10, 4/14/91F10:1, 8/8/91C8:4, 5/2/90C3:6, 5/24/90C1:4, 7/22/90F1:2, 8/17/90C1:5, 2/27/89 C01:1, 3/11/89C01:2, 5/22/89C01:3, 8/14/89C01:2, 11/22/89C03:3, 11/29/89C03:1, 12/11/89C01:2, 12/27/89 C01:2, 12/27/89C01:4, 1/14/88C01:2, 1/25/88C01:1, 2/5/88C01:2, 3/15/88A01:2, 3/15/88A01:2, 4/12/88C01:2, 5/24/88A10:1, 8/5/88C01:1, 12/18/88B01:2, 12/28/87C01:2, 8/23/86C08:3, 2/8/85C02:5, 2/5/84B12:3, 5/16/84B01:4, 6/17/83A03:4, 7/14/82B01:2, 9/5/82B08:1, 12/11/81A15:6, 8/28/81???:?. 8/28/80B1:2, 8/7/79B1:2, 3/2/79A10:1, 3/30/79A3:3, 4/6/79A3:1, 4/8/79E14:1, 6/9/77D1:1, 5/29/77C1:2, 4/10/76B7:1, 8/31/75B8:2, 3/14/73B10:1, 5/11/73B9:1, 5/22/73B6:1, 3/30/72A21:4, 5/7/72E4:1, 6/30/72B10:1, 8/8/72B8:1, 8/22/72B8:1, 9/21/72B8:1, 11/15/72B11:1, 11/17/72B7:1, 12/6/72A6:3, 4/17/71B6:1, 4/6/71B7:1, 8/1/71C16:1, 10/2/71B8:1, 4/8/70B9:1, 3/22/70C16:1, 1/16/70A9:1, 1/18/70A8:1, 12/20/70E6:1, 3/22/70C3:3, 2/21/70A2:6, 2/16/69C16:3, 7/20/69E1:1, 12/13/69B8:1, 10/19/69C16:1, 7/24/69B1:4(As always email me at Travelogue for the sources of specific facts.)


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