In an industry with small profit margins, a perishable product and fierce, largely unregulated competition, one Mississippi company has confidently filled its market for more than 30 years.

Pride of the Pond is the catfish processing operation of Battle Farms of Tunica. Owned by Bill Battle, the farm has about 10,000 acres of row crops and 2,700 acres of ponds in Panola, Tunica and Quitman counties. The state-of-the-art catfish processing plant is located just a few miles outside Tunica and employs 121 people.

“We pay attention to detail. We strive to be 100 percent on flavor 100 percent of the time,” Battle said. “We guarantee our product to have good flavor, and we take extra steps to be ‘Certified On Flavor.’”

Catfish are prized for their pleasant texture and mild, sweet flavor. Restaurants nationwide serve them fried or prepared in ways that take advantage of the fish’s versatility. The product’s biggest challenge is off-flavor, when the meat picks up an unpleasant flavor from algae while the fish is growing. Producers manage ponds extensively to prevent this.

Battle Farms began raising catfish in 1969 when Bill Battle’s father learned about the business from a friend in Belzoni, Miss. “The friend was farming and told him he was only making money selling catfish. Dad came home and started pushing up pond banks,” Battle said.

In 1982, the Battle family joined forces with two other investors to build a processing plant. The plant underwent an extensive renovation in 2008.

“We’re probably the smallest modern plant in the industry, and we have to maintain quality to stay in business,” Battle said. “We’ve been in the processing business for 30 years, and we still sell to many of our original customers.”EMPLOYEES AT PRIDE of the Pond in Tunica, Miss., work precisely and quickly to trim catfish fillets that will later be frozen and shipped.  (Photo by MSU Ag Communications/Scott Corey)

Jimmy Avery, aquaculture specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the company has worked hard to earn this loyalty.

“Battle Farms is an excellent example of the quality-oriented businesses that have helped U.S. farm-raised catfish maintain a reputation of high quality with American consumers,” Avery said. “The relationship between Battle Farms and Mississippi State University has been mutually beneficial for many years.”

Pride of the Pond processes about 55,000 pounds of catfish a day. James Gaiters manages Pride of the Pond’s acreage.

“We seine ponds with a 1 5/8-inch net, looking for the 1.5- to 2-pound catfish that produce the 3- to 5-ounce fillet, which is what the market wants,” Gaiters said.

Crews seine in the morning, using two tractors to pull a net across the length of the rectangular, 8- to 12-acre ponds. Once rounded up at the pond bank, a mechanical arm, or boom, scoops between 500 and 600 pounds of live catfish at a time into a tanker truck. A pond can yield 20,000 to 40,000 pounds at a harvest.

Catfish are hauled to the processing plant and emptied into a chilled holding tank. As they enter the plant, fish are sorted for size, then gutted, filleted and trimmed. Fillets are individually frozen in 20 minutes, then the fillets are sorted a final time for size and boxed for sale and distribution.

Bob Bies, Pride of the Pond plant manager, said the plant is kept at 43 degrees year-round. “That’s almost refrigeration, so the fish are being chilled from the moment they exit the trucks,” Bies said.

A refrigerated environment helps ensure that the finished product — frozen catfish fillets — meets all quality and safety standards. With input from the MSU Extension Service, the plant implemented the Food and Drug Administration’s required Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP, standards in 1998.

“There are a lot of different ways you can mess up a good catfish,” Battle said. “We want to be remembered for high quality and producing the best-tasting fish in the world.”

Today, employee turnover is low, production remains steady and Pride of the Pond is a bright spot in the northwest Mississippi agricultural landscape. But the industry and this company are struggling through some hard times.

Bill Gidden, Pride of the Pond’s general manager and one of the original investors, said the U.S. catfish industry, in which Mississippi is the major player, is now producing about 300 million pounds of processed catfish, down from a high of 600 million pounds a few years ago.

“This industry has hit the perfect storm,” the general manager said.

High demand encouraged the still-young industry to overproduce, which always drops prices. However, at the same time prices began to fall, input costs rose.

“Feed prices went crazy because of the high cost of soybeans and the other grain commodities used in catfish feed,” Gidden said.

Significant amounts of excess product had to be sold really cheaply, and many farmers lost so much money they went out of business. The industry has lost 50,000 acres of ponds in the last five years. Supply has tightened up and prices have risen by about 50 percent.

“At the same time, Vietnamese fish and other imports came in at a considerably lower price,” Gidden said. “Today even more acres are going out of production.”

Gidden and Battle both said imports are unfairly pressuring U.S. farm-raised catfish. U.S. catfish are grown under stringent standards that ensure the quality and safety of the product, and it costs money to meet these requirements. Imports do not have to meet U.S. quality standards in production, and the lower-cost product is flooding U.S. markets.

“Where the market will level with demand and price, I’m not really sure yet,” Gidden said.

Despite the challenges, Battle said Pride of the Pond’s goal is to pay attention to detail and continue to deliver the best product to cooks nationwide.

“On-flavor is everything to us,” Battle said. “Our quality and service will determine whether or not we stay in business. We want to compete with the alternatives market on quality, delivery and sales, not just price.”