Not a lot of things have changed in many years in the catfish farming business, according to one successful Paragould, Ark., farmer. Steve Kueter, manager of the third generation, family-owned Kueter's Fish Company said innovations — other than backhoes — have been far and few between. “We basically do things the same way we did them 20 years ago,” Kueter said.
The absence of serious controversy has led to overall stable market prices and security, especially for those businesses that have been long established, he believes.
Kueter, recently named 2005 Arkansas Catfish Farmer of the Year, said his farm was built by his grandfather in the 1950s to irrigate rice fields. He is thankful for the stability because it has enabled long-established catfish farms such as his to sidestep risky undertakings while slowly expanding and diversifying operations.
In fact, he said, most of the largest existing catfish farms started several decades ago, while many others have closed in the past decade.
“Our business has gradually taken new steps and didn't branch out in any one venture too far,” he said. “We have continued to evolve.”
He said capital startup costs are expensive for catfish farmers. But, he added, because catfish farming has minimal investment necessities, such as chemicals — especially compared to other ag sectors — there are fewer chances a season can be jeopardized.
Since 1988, Kueter's Fish Company has grown from managing ponds on 180 acres to today managing 110 ponds on 500 acres; 300 more acres are designated for bait production.
The company produces about 5,000 pounds of catfish per acre annually, as well as 5 million fingerlings. It additionally runs a fish processing operation at the front of a store, which Kueter said has been a key to growth.
“We have a unique situation here; most catfish farmers don't normally dress their fish themselves,” he said. “But we had to have a processing operation. That part is what has pulled us through tough financial times.
“We are able to take the highs and lows of the industry and make it work.”
While live catfish sales to producers account for Kueter's biggest percentage of revenues, sales of minnows — especially in the winter to ice fishermen in the North — account for 20 percent of total sales.
Kueter said the company does not aggressively market or solicit catfish sales. Instead, all the catfish are accounted for ahead of time with orders.
“If we have any overflow of fish it goes to processing,” he said.
His father, Tommy Kueter, said spring is generally the busiest time of the year for the farm when regional businesses, holding social functions, and charities, holding fundraising events, enjoy fish fries.
Tommy Kueter, who is semi-retired, said that since 1975 the market price for catfish hasn't fluctuated much.
Currently, the price is 75 cents per pound.
He described his son as modest and noted that if it wasn't for Steve's decision to assume the farm manager's position after finishing college at Arkansas State University, the business would have been sold or shut down.
“I had decided at that if he wanted to get out of it, then I would too,” the elder Kueter said. “Basically I am still in it because he wanted to stay in it. I'm very happy he did, for his benefit and for mine.”
In Steve Kueter's perspective, choosing another profession was out of the question. “This is all I ever thought I would do, nothing but this,” he said.
He learned the nuances of running the catfish farm from his father and grandfather and through long hours of hard work.
He and his wife, Emily, have three children, Benjamin, Julia and Sarah. “We live on the farm. It was good for me to grow up on, so why wouldn't it be good for them too?”
There is, however, one worry that Kueter sees as potentially — and perhaps inevitably — threatening the catfish farming sector: foreign competition.
He said the recent trade dispute over Vietnam's exporting what the Vietnamese described as catfish to the United States could be a foreshadowing.
“With Vietnam, what we were dealing with was a different species of fish. But it opened our (domestic catfish farmers') eyes,” he said. “It's a matter of time before they (foreign nations) will have some species (of catfish), and as it is with all other segments of agriculture, China is looming.
“Foreign competition is going to be our biggest issue, and there is no easy solution.”
The only answer he sees possible is for American catfish farmers to devise an improved marketing plan, one that could promote the advantage of fresh catfish grown domestically.
Kueter said that helping families in all walks of life to enjoy catfish is satisfying. “There is nothing negative you can say about catfish.
“It's a safe product, very few chemicals are involved, and most people who try it like it,” he said.