Catfish Farming Fades

Tuscaloosa, AL – Once a day on Pine View Farm in Hale County the ponds appear to boil. Thousands of catfish skim the top of the water to gobble up feed. It's a stark contrast to ponds just down the road that are dry and abandoned.

Soundbite: Cat7 (:05) Ralph Cole: All of the young people are leaving the farms, they're going to town.

Ralph Cole is the owner of Pine View Farm.

Soundbite: Cat11 (:07) Here, catfish had been something that the young people could stay and get into. They could stay on the farm, but without the catfish, they wouldn't be able to.

Alabama's catfish farmers have experienced tough times in the past two years. Cole says prices for fish have dropped considerably, and that's put a big strain on Black Belt farmers.

Soundbite: Cat8 (:20) Ralph Cole: Well we was grow four to five million pounds. Fish is off, uh, 15 to 20 cents the last couple of years, uh, that's not hard to figure. It's hard to make that up. You know we've had to find ways to cut costs just to stay in business.

And cutting costs has become part of the business. Cole isn't buying new equipment. He's postponed reconstruction of other ponds and he's squeezing more labor out of fewer employees. Greg Whitis visits local catfish farms to give advice on how they can shave expenses. Whitis, an extension specialist at the Alabama Catfish Center, says some farmers are thinking about changing feed companies to save money. Others aren't doing necessary pond maintenance.

Soundbite: Cat10 (:07) Greg Whitis: I'd say all of our farmers are in a survival mode right now. And uh, that seems to be the name of the game.

But some of the farmers are losing. Auburn University's Jesse Chappell also works at the catfish center. He says the slow economy and cheaper Vietnamese imports are hampering the industry and forcing farmers to consider other lines of work.

Soundbite: Cat9 (:07) Jesse Chappell: A lot of the guys that had been farming, some of them won't be farming in another year or so or two. Their cash reserves are gone.

But catfish producers haven't been completely left on their own. Black Belt farmers, including Cole, received some federal aid this year for feed.

Soundbite: Cat13 (:16) Ralph Cole: We did get some help this year out of the government on this feed program, they did help out on feed. That probably will be all the gain we make if we make any this year. You know whether they do it next year or not is still to be seen. Probably not.

And that makes for an uncertain future for next generation farmers like Cole's son-in-law, Bill Marsh.

Soundbite: Cat17 (:16) Bill Marsh: Me and my wife been doing it for ten years together, but I've worked for Mr. Cole for going on 18 years or so.

And it's this family connection that Greg Whitis says makes catfish farming a lifestyle. But how long this tradition will continue is unsure. Cole says the industry has taken hits no business should bear. If things don't improve the likelihood is slim Cole's grandchildren will continue the family business of Southern catfish farming.

For Alabama Public Radio, I'm Mandie Trimble.