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Catfish Farmers Feel Forced Out of Business

US - The high cost of feed and cheap competition have forced Leyden Pugh of Lake Village out of the catfish business, reports the PB Commercial.

Also feeling the pinch from foreign imports and rising grain costs, Jerry Seamans is cutting back his 1,200 acres of catfish ponds by 20 percent and returning the acreage to soybeans and rice.

I really dont know of a fish operation thats not changing, said Seamans, whose farm is just outside of Lake Village. Some people are going out of business, several people are doing the same thing Im doing. Most everybody in the business is trying to make major adjustments.

Catfish farming is a $600 million industry in Arkansas, down about $120 million from five years ago, said Carole Engle, director of aquaculture and the fisheries center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

At its peak in 2002, Arkansas catfish industry numbered 195 operations covering 38,000 acres of ponds. The latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show 128 catfish farms with 29,900 acres of ponds. Production has dropped from 106,821 pounds two years ago to the current 90,400 pounds.

The industry is struggling nationally, and catfish consumption among Americans is down slightly, especially in California and New York City where imports are selling better, officials say.

To further cut costs, the Catfish Farmers of Arkansas plans to petition the state Public Service Commission for a reduction in the electric rates producers pay.

Seamans, who is on the industry trade associations board, said 90 percent of a catfish farmers energy use is from large aerators used to pump air into the ponds during the night. Farmers currently pay the agriculture rate, which is for peak usage, even though the aerators run during off-peak hours.

Other issues still must be addressed at the federal level, Engle said, including trade issues with heavily subsidized imports from Vietnam and China, as well as food safety concerns laws governing the types of chemicals that can be used to help fish grow in China and Vietnam are less stringent than in the U.S.

Until the state and federal governments begin inspecting foreign fish like they do meat and poultry, U.S. catfish farmers will be at a disadvantage, said Pugh, who is closing 920 acres of catfish ponds in Chicot County.

View the PB Commercial story by clicking here.