THE ONLY NUMBERS looking good to Mississippi catfish producers this year are the disaster payment credits they have at the feed mill. The supply of catfish is large, current prices are at break-even levels or lower than the cost of production, feed prices are inching up, and current acreage and production are down in Mississippi. But state catfish farmers are starting to receive their portion of the $20 million earmarked for disaster relief in Mississippi.

Terry Hanson, agricultural economist with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said drought disaster relief is coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the form of credits toward the purchase of catfish feed. He said the drought last year hurt the catfish industry by raising the cost of soybeans and corn, the primary ingredients of catfish food. “The credits are coming at a crucial time and are going to be a real big help. Low prices are hurting producers. It will help if they can cut down on some feed costs.”

Jim Steeby, Mississippi State University Extension aquaculture specialist with the National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Stoneville, Miss., said typical prices are between 55 and 58 cents a pound for a 1- to 3-pound fish. Prices peaked at 62 cents a pound this spring after averaging 70 cents a pound from 1995 to 2000.

High supplies have kept prices depressed. Steeby said processors have seen a 6 to 8 percent increase in output each month this year, so demand is strong.

“It takes about three years to produce a fish crop, and processing records cannot continue to be made on a lower catfish supply,” Steeby said. “Supplies will have to drop soon and with a stronger economy, prices should improve.”

Steeby said the state's water acreage dropped 10 percent over the last two years. “Ponds are going out of production because prices are bad,” Steeby said. “Most of those are older ponds in bad condition, but producers are deciding that they're not worth rebuilding at a cost of $800 to $1,200 per acre.”

Mississippi has about 400 catfish producers farming 103,000 water acres. The state leads the nation in catfish production and acreage, but is down from a high of 113,000 acres in 2001.