As a special for Birmingham’s restaurant week, Little Savannah added cornmeal-battered Alabama catfish to its menu alongside Creole stewed tomatoes and okra with Parmesan grits. Alabama catfish is flavorful, protein-rich, and best of all, local. And it’s a growing industry.
Mississippi still ranks No. 1 in U.S. catfish production, but Alabama is holding more of the market share. The reason? Compared to Mississippi and Arkansas, where many farmers have filled in their ponds and returned to row crops, Alabama farmers have maintained their catfish ponds, says Mitt Walker, director of the Alabama Catfish Producers.
The resulting lower supply and increased demand is leading to a record year for the state’s catfish farmers, who produce more than 100 million pounds of the white, flaky fish annually.
From Cattle to Catfish
For Travis Wilson, 2011 Alabama Catfish Farmer of the Year, it meant keeping the family farm through tough times in the 1980s.
Wilson Farms, located in Dallas County, still retains a 300-head beef cattle herd, sticking with more than 150 years of tradition. But its catfish – with annual production rates of 3 to 4 million pounds – is what keeps the farm going.
“It’s an industry that enables us to live on the family farm and be involved in agriculture,” Wilson says. But he’s quick to point out that it’s not an easy farming enterprise.
These days, the price of corn and soybeans has continued to remain high, which makes fish food almost prohibitively expensive and entices farmers to return to row crops. The fish are also fetching higher prices, but it’s a delicate balance.
Walker says the feed prices continue to affect profitability.
The future of the business, Walker says, is in making it more efficient and offering a sustainable alternative to wild-caught fish from waterways that are overfished.
“Over time, as those wild populations have to be more closely controlled for ecological purposes, it’s a good alternative,” Walker says.
Much of the world uses fish as a main protein source, leaving the native supply depleted.
Wilson is trying his hand at a raceway system that allows him to better focus feed consumption, water quality and waste management while also diversifying with tilapia.
These efforts may need to be replicated by other farmers as the market for U.S. farm-raised catfish grows. After crossing multiple state lines, most fish end up in frozen filets on America’s dinner tables. Restaurants such as Little Savannah that focus on local food make up only a small portion of overall sales, but think it’s important to keep people interested in the regional fare.
“We like to let people know where things come from,” said Maureen Holt, co-owner of Little Savannah restaurant with her chef-husband, Clif. “I think it is getting better, and people are a little bit more aware.”
But the world’s changing demographics may also open an international market. Walker says China became a net importer of seafood for the first time last year. That changes not only the potential for the United States to sell catfish to China, but also to the countries to which China sells.
“As places are looking to source it, I think there will be more opportunity for Alabama to fill those markets as well,” Walker says.