With many Southern catfish farmers losing money and converting acreage to row crops, Roger Barlow might be forgiven a stormy mood. But while not downplaying the problems, the Mississippi-based president of the Catfish Institute (CFI) and executive director of Catfish Farmers of America (CFA) remains positive and insists the besieged industry will weather the financial storm.

Barlow, fresh off a marketing trip to Canada, recently spoke with Delta Farm Press about the industry’s current crises, the impact of burgeoning feed and fuel costs, the thinking/research behind the coming “Delacata” and feeding the crowd at a coming presidential debate.

Among his comments:

On current catfish farming conditions and Congress’ response…

“The times are very, very difficult for our catfish farmers. They’re being severely challenged.

“Due to higher operating costs, farmers are losing money on the fish they grow. Bottom line is the farmers must make a profit and (to do that requires) stabilization of feed costs and the prices received (for catfish) must be higher.

“Federal feed assistance is needed, whether for catfish or beef, poultry, dairy or pork. (In essence) a feeding/fuel surcharge has been added with this escalation of the oil price.

“Our congressional leadership understands we must have food and fuel. You can’t hold one hostage for the other.

“In my opinion, there must be some federal assistance for all protein producers. Feed has never been this expensive.”

For catfish producers, fuel and feed prices “are tied together. You must have feed that is affordable and efficient to maximize conversion. But, we also have seen diesel and electrical rates escalating.

“Our farmers are struggling — but the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry is not dead. We do recognize some producers will exit but others are committed to the future. And if they’re going to commit, they have to make a profit.”

Arkansas farmers are saying 5,000 to 7,000 acres are going out and there’s a threat of losing 12,000 to 15,000. Are you seeing similar numbers in Mississippi?

“We do know that catfish production is declining but, at this time, it’s difficult to say just how much. A lot of people are making decisions today that will affect their farms for the next five or 10 years.

“Stabilization is the key for all of them. They’re all confused and asking, ‘Where is this record crude (price) taking us? Will there be a federal food policy? Will these inferior and illegal imports continue to come in?’

“We know our industry will be smaller. But it won’t disappear. The resiliency of our catfish farmers is strong and they will prevail.

“If you think about it, there is no aquaculture industry in the United States that even comes close to what the catfish industry has accomplished: not trout, not salmon, not tilapia. The future will bear out the fact that American consumers will support their farmers and they know catfish is safe, healthy, and sustainable.

“Two things are dependent on this industry: the catfish farmer himself and the catfish consumer. I believe that partnership is stronger than any other in agriculture. That’s been our key to success in the past and our key to success in the future.

“Demand remains strong. Sales are up 13 percent for the year and 21 percent for June. We’ve just got to get the price and on-farm profitability (in line) because we have a consumer that is very, very loyal.”

Catfish farmers have said they need $1 to $1.15 per pound to make a go of it…

“Right now it is between 80 and 85 cents (per pound). When you go to the grocery store and see that everything else has increased 30, 40 or 50 percent, you realize that our farmers need to receive 15 to 20 percent more for their product now.”

They also say it seems easier to raise prices for commodities other than catfish.

“The hardest part of increasing the price is it has to happen across the board. All processors have to bear the same burden of (raising prices).

“We get calls all the time from people that love to eat catfish, saying, ‘We know things are tough and hear a lot of horror stories. Retail catfish prices should just go up. Consumers will still buy U.S. farm-raised catfish.’

“However, when you consider catfish, there are many substitutes available. There are all the imported products, all the ocean catches.

“But (U.S. farm-raised catfish) is sustainable, better for the environment, and healthier in many ways. There are legitimate barriers to moving the price up. But I do believe the price should go up so that our farmers are making a profit.”

There has been noise made about setting up a producer bargaining group, presenting a united front to get prices up. Are you in favor?

“I’m definitely in favor of anything that will offer unity for our farmers so we can ensure the future of our farmers. You either pay farmers what their product is worth or you won’t have any more farmers.”

On state Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation requiring restaurants to identify where the catfish they serve is from…

“Mississippi passed (COOL legislation) unanimously in both House and Senate and every committee. That is a testament that the legislators understood this was a very serious issue. … I believe it was the most significant legislation the Mississippi catfish growers — if not the entire industry — have ever had.

“We do know there was legislation on call — some didn’t get called up, some didn’t pass — in Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana. Texas has already contacted us about what (was done in Mississippi). Arkansas already has a bill that requires COOL labeling for restaurants.

“But, the Mississippi COOL law is a model for other states. In our industry, 70 percent of product is sold in restaurants. That’s why the legislation was so vital.

“Only 30 percent is sold in grocery stores. But (that product) is already covered under a federal COOL law for fish and seafood.

“We know that safety was the driving force behind (the law). We know that imported fish contains dangerous, illegal chemicals. We know that FDA inspects only 1 to 2 percent of the food entering the United States. We know that 52 shipments were rejected in 2007.

“TCI commissioned a national survey and 96 percent of the catfish consumers across the country preferred U.S. farm-raised catfish. … By displaying signs in Mississippi restaurants it ensures restaurant patrons are receiving the highest quality product that can be served.

“The COOL legislation doesn’t prohibit anyone from selling imported catfish, they just must label it on their menu in the font size of the other menu selections.

“TCI offers, free of charge, certificates saying, ‘We proudly serve U.S. farm-raised catfish.’ There are 1,500 catfish restaurants that have already received signage in Mississippi. And there are many more going out.

“Whether it’s Mississippi or any other state, there should be no doubt about the product you’re being served and that your family is consuming.”

On the coming “Delacata”…

“One of the more important things we’re doing is aggressively looking at a name change for catfish in white table-cloth restaurants. TCI has commissioned many focus groups across the country and many consumers won’t even try catfish because of the name.

“We have trademarked the name ‘Delacata.’ The precedent is already there. Look at Patagonian toothfish, which is now called ‘Chilean sea bass’ on menus (and) slime-head fish is called ‘orange roughy.’ Sun-dried plums are a recently used name for prunes. These new names are obviously more trendy or appetizing than their predecessors.

“We have placed Delacata in five upscale restaurants across the country and it has been an overwhelming success.

“We’re now looking at ways to differentiate that product at the farm level so the farmer and processor can be ensured a better return on their investment. The whole goal is to enhance the perception (of catfish) with a name change and thus increase the value. And we’ve successfully passed that litmus test.

“(Our product) will always be called ‘catfish’ in catfish areas. Delacata is almost like Black Angus beef — there will some different standards for Delacata just like there are for Black Angus.

Different standards for Delacata? Does that mean premium feed or the fish are kept separate?

“We’ve commissioned a consulting group, Turover Straus, that works entirely in food. They’ve done similar things before. A group from their company visited the Delta last week. They’ve been on farms, have been in Stoneville, and have been to processing plants.

“They’re developing a blueprint to have distinction between Delacata and catfish. We presently don’t know what those differences will be. It may be a processing difference, a growing technique difference. But there will be some distinct differences, standard differences, maybe packaging differences.

“Delacata will be the filet mignon of catfish. We’re not trying to hide the fact it’s U.S. farm-raised catfish, but it’s an enhanced version. We feel all the technology and infrastructure is in place to capitalize on this.

“Our partnership with Viking Range Corp. has led to this. We’ve been working with Viking on developing Delacata for three years.

On partnering with Bass Pro restaurants and an Iron Chef…

“Everything we’re doing going forward will be aggressive marketing, not passive. We’re working with a restaurant chain — Bass Pro Shops — to have a catfish promotion. We’re going to use that as a model for additional restaurant chains in the future.

“It’s also important to talk about a processor partnership where we offer them opportunities through point-of-sales materials, recipe booklets, some cost sharing on marketing.

“Our celebrity spokesperson is Cat Cora, the Food Network’s first female Iron Chef. There will be print ads with her and three of the catfish farmers of the year.”

On opening Canadian markets…

“We’ve been working in Canada for about eight years. Right now, it’s a very interesting time to be selling there. The devaluation of the U.S dollar is opening up opportunities.

“Next year, the supply of fish will be extremely tight. We’ll have a trade delegation of processors going to Canada in late October to meet with buyers in the retail sector in both Toronto and Montreal. Some processors are already selling (into Canada) but there is opportunity for (others).”

On serving catfish at the coming presidential debate at the University of Mississippi…

“The first presidential debate will be in Oxford, Miss., on Sept. 26. Catfish will be one of the three or four featured foods in the Grove. There will be around 4,000 people (eating) — most journalists from around the world. We’ll be there, center stage with U.S. farm-raised catfish.

“This came about due to a partnership with the Southern Food Alliance, which is based in Oxford. John T. Edge is a famous culinary expert and said, ‘I want catfish at this event.’”

On moving inspections to USDA…

“There are a lot of things that are happening for this industry. Even though farmers are in a plight, TCI is working non-stop on things that will pay dividends.

“CFA was instrumental with the (new) farm bill in having inspection moved from the Department of Commerce to USDA. That broke new ground.

“Aquaculture is agriculture and there’s no better place to have our industry than with USDA. … There’s no more recognizable seal than ‘USDA Grade A.’ Our product will now have the opportunity to be stamped with that seal … which symbolizes quality.”

Anything else?

“Times are difficult. But so many positive things are happening … that will prove beneficial for farmers that stay in catfish. The industry is not going away.”

Editor’s note: For an Arkansas perspective on the current state of catfish farming, see http://deltafarmpress.com/markets/catfish-update-0808/.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com