As the U.S. commemorates National Catfish Month, producers in Arkansas and across the country are grappling with high feed costs and a drop in sales.

“The last two years have been especially difficult for the U.S. catfish industry, probably the most difficult years in its half a century history, and several farmers have been forced out of the business,” said Steeve Pomerleau, an Extension aquaculture specialist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

High catfish feed prices, driven by higher soybean and corn costs, is one of the biggest challenges facing catfish producers. Average catfish pond bank prices have remained at about 77 cents per pound since 2007. While this price is above the long-run average of 70 cents per pound, production costs have risen faster than prices have increased.

Meanwhile, imports have increased to capture 20 percent of the U.S. catfish market. While catfish imports from China have dropped 44 percent since 2008, tra and basa fish from Vietnam remain among the top imports.

“Many farmers are forced out of business by this perfect storm of high feed prices, low pond bank fish prices, increased competition from cheaper imported fish from Asia, and diminishing demand due to the slower economy,” Pomerleau said.

However, many catfish farmers in Arkansas have been able to remain in business by scaling back their operation.

“Some farmers dropped their water acreage significantly and also stocked less fish per water acre in an attempt to minimize their operating expenses to a sustainable level.”

To try to keep catfish feed prices down, feed mills have developed new feed formulations. Because the performance of the formulations on catfish growth and feed conversion ratios were basically unknown, the UAPB Aquaculture/Fisheries Center has been studying them over the last two years.

“We’ve partnered with the industry to scientifically test the performance of some of those new feed formulations in tanks and ponds and to provide the industry with reliable data from which to make decisions.”

The UAPB Aquaculture/Fisheries Center has also conducted workshops to assist catfish farmers with financial management issues during difficult times.

Thanks to economic stimulus legislation which called for $50 million in assistance, U.S. fish farmers are getting some help at the federal level. Arkansas received $7.8 million of those funds, said Ted McNulty, aquaculture director for the Arkansas Agriculture Department.

“On July 20, the Aquaculture division dispersed $7.13 million to 122 farmers,” said McNulty. “The farmers received the difference between the previous five-year average cost for feed and their average 2008 cost of feed times the tons of feed purchased in 2008 — up to $100,000. The Arkansas Agriculture Department-Aquaculture Division received the funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Sen. Blanche Lincoln was responsible for getting the funds included in the Act.”

McNulty said the previous five-year average cost of feed was $235 per ton and most farmers paid between $375 and $425 a ton in 2008.

Despite the challenges that the industry faces, catfish farming continues to play an important role in the state’s economy. Producers are striving to make the production process as efficient as possible and are studying new marketing strategies and products to increase their market share and improve the price they obtain for their fish.

“The catfish industry contributes about 3,500 jobs to the Arkansas economy and about $500,000 in total economic impact,” said Carole Engle, UAPB Aquaculture/Fisheries Center director, adding that catfish boasts many benefits.

“It’s a safe product that is raised in well water, fed grains, subjected to numerous regulations and inspections by state and federal agencies, and self-imposed by the industry to ensure that it meets high quality standards,” she said.

It’s also a sustainable product that is very versatile.

“Catfish is locally grown and is one of the most environmentally sustainable types of seafood available,” Engle said. “It is a great-tasting, healthy, high-protein, low-fat product that is excellent for frying, grilling, baking and stir frying.”

Engle urged that consumers ask to ensure that what they are buying is U.S. farm-raised catfish.

Congress designated August as National Catfish Month in the late 1980s to highlight the contributions that the U.S. catfish industry makes to the nation’s economy, while providing consumers with a healthy, safe and great-tasting food.

For a variety of catfish recipes including southwestern pan-fried catfish, cheesy catfish, catfish gumbo and creole catfish cakes, visit www.uscatfish.com.