Mississippi, the nation’s No. 1 farm raised catfish production state, has seen a precipitous overall decline in acres in recent years as farmers, unhappy with prices and profit margins, have converted ponds to crops, the Conservation Reserve Program, or reservoirs for irrigation of row crops.

From 2009 to 2012, total acres in the state dropped from 80,200 to 51,200, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, with the bulk of the decline in the south Delta, where the majority of production is located.

But for Kevin M. Shirk and his wife, Edith, who operate Shirk Catfish Farm near Brooksville, Miss., fish production remains a viable — and profitable — enterprise. Noxubee County, in the Black Prairie region of east Mississippi where their farm is located, ranks fourth in pond acres statewide and No. 1 outside the Delta.

“There has been some attrition in the catfish industry on this side of the state,” Kevin says, “but the decline hasn’t been as sharp as in the Delta. One difference, I think, is that most of the operations here are family-owned, and more hands-on management oriented, with family members providing most or all of the labor.

“On our farm, Edith has worked right alongside me, and our six children and 14 grandchildren help and fill in when there is a need we can’t handle.”

The area has a very good catfish production infrastructure, he says, with a number of small and medium size family-run operations. The heavy soils in the region are ideal for catfish ponds.

“The production system on our farm is fairly typical of commercial catfish operations in this area. Unlike some farms here, however, catfish is our only enterprise. We attempt to do a superior job of managing our operation, which we feel gives us a competitive advantage.

“Last year, catfish prices were good, and our margins were good. Right now, prices are running about 95 cents a pound net, down from $1.25, and I think there is market pressure for the price to drop even more.

“Since we started operation in 1997, we’ve not had a year that we didn’t show a profit. The worst year we’ve had was an average 42.5 cents per pound. Thankfully, it was a good production year and we still showed a profit — just barely. But, like row crop farmers, our input costs keep escalating. I’m projecting average feed cost this year of $386 per ton, up from $354 last year.”

His management philosophy, Kevin says, is to “take care of all the little things. The big things are a given, but at the end of the day, I look for one more thing to add to my list of things to do to be as efficient as possible.”

A high production fish farm is a 24/7 job, he says. “I’m out checking the ponds three or four times a night, catching sleep when I can. But I love working with fish, and the Lord has blessed us with success.”

Before coming to Mississippi in 1997, Kevin was part of a family dairying operation in Michigan.

“We had a 120-cow herd, and there was pressure to get larger to be more financially viable. I went to the bank and got a loan for a new milking barn, but before the contractor started moving dirt I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to take on this debt?’ And after careful consideration, my answer was ‘no’.

“My brother, Paul, was growing hogs and catfish here in Mississippi. I’ve always loved to fish and I thought it would be great to be able to make a living with fish. So, we moved here in 1997, bought some pastureland, and put in our first ponds in April that year.”