When it comes to catfish production, Rodney Henderson has seen it all. The Yazoo City, Miss., producer raised his first catfish in 1964, and he and the industry have since matured together.
Henderson has enjoyed the “ups” and survived the “downs” of the past 40 years, and his Eden Fisheries — located appropriately, he says, on Money Sunk Road — now consists of a hatchery and ponds producing fingerlings and food fish on about 1,100 water acres.
Fresh out of college, Henderson began his catfish producing career while working for a chemical and feed business. “The catfish industry was in its very initial stages in 1963, and I first saw it as an opportunity to sell feed. Then, after further thought and with a college background in animal husbandry, I saw the possibilities presented by an industry in its infancy stages.”
“It was a new industry in the beginning, and the main problem was developing our markets,” he says. “We were even in competition with river fish at one time. In the summer, when people were catching fish out of rivers, it restricted the amount of catfish we could sell. We had to sell our product during the winter, and we had to educate consumers about the benefits of farm-raised catfish.”
As time went on, river fish became less of a competing factor because markets were developed for farm-raised catfish, and the seafood “pie” grew larger. During this transition time, the marketshare for river fish remained the same while the market grew for Mississippi farm-raised catfish.
The Mississippi Delta, says Henderson, offers natural benefits for catfish production, such as flat land capable of holding water. Over the years, advancements in technology have given catfish producers such tools as oxygen meters and improved seining methods, says Henderson.
An infrastructure also has been developed, including local feed companies and processing plants, and an industry that began with a few thousand acres now boasts about 100,000 acres industry-wide.
Despite low prices, Henderson says those producers entering catfish production today can benefit from the trial and error of those producers who pioneered the industry. “In most cases the textbooks in the early 1960s were of limited or even no value because the writers were learning as well. What sounded good on paper, often did not work well on the ponds,” he says.
In those early years, he adds, no one had conducted research into what is required to grow a catfish — the feed, protein, vitamins and other nutrients needed for adequate production. One real turning point for the catfish industry, says Henderson, came with the initial research conducted by Mississippi State University and Auburn University.
“We were feeding catfish glorified hog rations. But with research, our feeding methods became more scientific. We began feeding what the catfish really needed,” he says.
Advances in oxygen equipment also have helped the catfish industry, he continues. “We had to improvise with anything we could find on the farm. We built the equipment we needed in our farm shops, learning as we went along. Finally, the industry became large enough to justify the commercial production of needed equipment such as aerators.”
In looking at current market conditions, Henderson says catfish growers realistically need to get at least 70 cents per pound for their product to make a profit today. “This is the longest down cycle we've ever had. We've had down cycles before in this industry, but the prices rebounded pretty quickly.”
Although Henderson hopes to see a major change in prices soon, he doesn't yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. And until prices improve, he doesn't see much expansion in catfish farming. “Unless we can get some better prices, I don't think we'll see any increases in acreage, anywhere. At these prices, it'll be difficult for anyone to hang in there.”