Referred to as the “pit bull” of the catfish industry, Jim Popejoy is not one to back away from a fight. The Eudora, Ark., producer is well known for his tenacity when taking on issues he perceives as vital to the success of his industry and chosen profession.
“Catfish is my livelihood, and I will spend my last dollar trying to preserve my livelihood,” says Popejoy, who operates a general store and small restaurant in addition to producing catfish.
He began catfish farming in 1996. Being new in the business and unfamiliar with the industry's history, some of his opinions admittedly “stepped on the toes” of others in the industry.
But Popejoy says the one thing he strives for is unity among producers so they'll have the strength to address issues that affect the grower segment of the catfish industry.
This past year, he began a campaign to help boost catfish prices. In August 2003, he sent out letters to about 400 catfish farmers — his “first call” to action, with a goal of getting prices back to 75 cents by Lent 2004.
“I got some feedback, but the letter was more or less designed to create a mindset among producers and processors that this industry was on the verge of collapse if the live fish price didn't get back to a profitable level,” he says.
He doesn't believe his efforts were wasted and thinks they actually may have played a part in recent price increases, although he knows that many factors came together to help reverse the price decline.
“After we got to 75 cents, the rumors started that processors were going to drop the price below 75 cents per pound after Lent,” says Popejoy. “So I decided to stir up growers again — to reset the mindset, that producers would shut down the industry before selling fish below cost.”
“We're trying to create a mindset that 75 cents is the lowest we're going to take. We can't stand to be paid less, and we need to get our bank notes current and viable. We don't want to be greedy, just profitable. We don't want to get the price of our product up so high that we substantially increase the spread between the price of imported fish and U.S.-grown catfish and price ourselves out of the market.”
Now, with higher feed and fuel costs, 75 cents per pound may not be as profitable as catfish growers previously thought it would be, says Popejoy.
“We need one penny per pound more for every $10 feed cost increase above $230 per ton. So today, catfish feed out the door is about $320 per ton on average — booked in advance, it would be $290 — plus 6 cents per pound, which would make 81 cents.”
Add a fuel adjustment, and Popejoy figures by June 1, 2004, growers need to receive 83 cents per pound to make a return on their investment.
The recent slump in the industry continues to be felt among catfish farmers, he says. “USDA says Mississippi lost 8,000 acres of catfish in 2003, but it has been confirmed by a telephone audit that Mississippi lost 15,000 acres of catfish farmers in 2003. Arkansas is expected to lose 6,000 to 8,000 water acres in 2004.”
Popejoy says farmers in his area lost $4.5 million in fish they sold to a processing plant which filed for bankruptcy before the growers were paid for their product. “If there are no farmers raising fish, then there is no catfish industry. We've got to make catfish farming more profitable. I've taken 46 cents for fish when I've been in a bind.”
He's also using other tactics to guarantee a profitable price for his fish. Last year and again this April he opened his “Uncle Cat Fishing Hole,” allowing people to fish out of his ponds. He charges $3 per head to fish from the pond bank, and then 75 cents per pound for the catfish they catch.
Promoting the industry
Popejoy, who has been in sales most of his life, is always searching for new ways to promote the catfish industry. One of his ideas is “Uncle Cat,” a character he conceived and copyrighted after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
He called on a graphics artist — Pam Lott of Oxford — to personalize a catfish dressed in Uncle Sam's uniform, with the idea that it would be imprinted on T-shirts to show the industry's support for the war on terrorism.
“We printed a few T-shirts, but they really didn't catch anybody's fancy,” says Popejoy. He already was putting out a catfish newsletter to industry members to bring to farmers' attention to the good and bad of the industry as he saw it, and he began to see a new use for Uncle Cat.
During January 2002, having lived with Uncle Cat on his desk and realizing the devastation being caused to the industry by Vietnamese imports, he concluded that his Uncle Cat logo said everything good about the American catfish, especially its origin.
“If we adopted Uncle Cat and promoted it on every package, then we wouldn't need anti-dumping legislation because every consumer could see where the product was grown. U.S. catfish could be processed and packed under our unique brand. I know I have the best looking logo for the catfish industry that tells the tale they have been trying to tell since Vietnamese fish came on the scene.”
Popejoy has offered Uncle Cat to several processing plants to be used as a marketing tool, but so far he hasn't had any bites. “It's a viable marketing tool, and I believe that whoever uses it will have an edge over any other fish product on that store counter,” he says.
One of the best things people can do to support the industry, says Popejoy, is to vote for the catfish to be declared the United States' national fish. You can currently vote at www.vote4catfish.com, but he says an additional effort is needed to solicit support through a written petition that can then be mailed to The Catfish Institute.
There is a link to vote at Popejoy's Web site, www.unclecat.usa.com. “It's a great thing, but it's really moving slowly. I've even asked local rural water districts to include a ballot in support of the industry's effort on its customers' water bills,” he says.