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“The production system on our farm is fairly typical of commercial catfish operations in this area," says Kevin Shirk of the 103.5-acres he and his wife, Edith, have near Brooksville, Miss. "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. Since we started operation in 1997, we've not had a year that we didn't show a profit."
KEVIN SHIRK and his wife, Edith, operate a catfish farm in Noxubee County, Miss. They have 103.5 acres in 10 ponds, with a consistently high level of production.
Imports taking market share
Imported catfish, which can be produced so much more cheaply, has been a widespread problem for the industry, Kevin says. “Imports have taken a lot of the market share of U.S. farm-raised catfish. The continuing challenge for our industry is to make consumers aware of the superior quality of our farm-raised fish.”
Fish-gobbling cormorants and blue herons have become more of a problem in the area over the past two years, he says. “Flyway patterns seem to be changing, and we’re seeing greater numbers of the birds. They can eat a lot of fish, and it’s an everyday chore trying to chase them away.”
Initially, the Shirks were relying on rainfall to keep water replenished in the ponds. “But five years ago, we drilled wells on both farms,” Kevin says. “It was a fortunate move, as it turned out, because of the severe drought that year. We were able to have adequate water for all our ponds and maintain full production. The wells were drilled to a depth of 1,135 feet to get a 295 gallons per minute flow.”
The Shirks also have a herd of 20 Brangus beef cow-calf pairs. “While they’re not a profit enterprise, we use them to graze pond levees and perimeters, which saves the cost and labor that would be required to mow these areas,” Kevin says.
“We utilize artificial insemination to get the best cattle possible genetically. Bull calves are sold as steers at 500 pounds; heifer calves are all saved for future feeding stock.”
Suppliers are important to their business, he says, “and we’ve enjoyed good relationships with all of ours. Others in the farming community have been helpful with advice and assistance. The late Harvey Miller, one of the original east Mississippi catfish farmers, was a great source of advice and encouragement to me when I was starting out in this business. He always had time for me and was always generous in sharing his expertise, and I’m grateful for his friendship. We’ve been appreciative, too, of the work that the Mississippi State University Extension and Delta Research and Extension Center specialists provide.”
Since he and Edith constitute the entire labor/management force, Kevin says, “We’re stretched about as far as we can go,” and no expansion is contemplated at present.
“While this arrangement allows us to sell more pounds of fish than the industry standard, it limits our being able to take time off, increases the burden if one of us is sick, and delays the implementation of changes in our production practices. In mid- to late summer, we just plain get tired, and that, too, becomes a limiting factor for production.
“Looking ahead, our business and family goals are to provide employment and income for Edith and me, and to keep production and profit levels as high as we can, with at least a small increase each year.
“I have no intention of retiring, as long as I’m in good health, but in about five years we’d like take on a partner with the future goal of that partner taking over management of the operation so Edith and I can phase out of the day-to-day requirements of the business..
“In the meantime, our overriding goal is to continue to serve God as the best stewards we can be, and to have the joy of helping our family and others.”