Catfish is the leading aquaculture industry in the United States. Commercial catfish production generates over 27 percent of the value of aquaculture production in the United States. From the first commercial production in ponds in the 1960s, catfish production has grown to reach annual sales of roughly 319 million pounds in 2016. Mississippi leads the U.S. in production with 34,700 acres in July 2017.
The rapid growth of the catfish industry in the 1980s and 1990s led it to become one of the most important agricultural activities in states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama. The combined production acreage of these three states makes up 94 percent of all catfish production acreage. Mississippi leads the country in catfish production and has held this position since the late 1980s. The catfish industry generates an economic impact of billions of dollars and is a major source of economic activity and employment in a number of Mississippi counties.
The two major catfish-producing areas in Mississippi are 1) a relatively well-defined geographical area of the Mississippi River alluvial valley in northwest Mississippi that is commonly referred to as the "Delta" and 2) a less well-defined area of east-central Mississippi.
The Delta region accounted for the majority of the total land area devoted to catfish in Mississippi. The land is remarkably flat, with elevations of 100 to 150 feet above sea level. Most catfish ponds in the region are constructed on soils with a high clay content. Water for filling catfish ponds is pumped from the Mississippi River alluvial aquifer. Wells range from 50 to 250 feet deep. The topography and the availability of a high-yielding groundwater source are ideally suited for construction of "embankment" or "levee" ponds. After ponds are initially filled with ground water, water levels are maintained by inputs of precipitation and pumped water.
Most catfish ponds in east Mississippi are located in the western portion of the Blackland Prairie soil region which extends from just south of Montgomery, Alabama, to the west of Columbus, Mississippi, and ending near Tupelo, in northeast Mississippi. These soils also have a high clay content but differ from Delta soils in that they often overlie soft limestone, chalk, or marl. Elevation ranges from 75 to 300 feet above sea level and the land is nearly flat to moderately sloping.
High-yielding aquifers in the Blackland Prairie are considerably deeper than the alluvial aquifer along the Mississippi River, and this is reflected in water-use patterns and pond types in the region. About half the ponds in east Mississippi are watershed-type ponds that use rainfall and storm runoff for filling and maintaining water levels. The rest are embankment-type ponds or hybrid watershed-levee ponds, but nearly all use water pumped from nearby streams or other surface water supplies.
High feed prices, cheap foreign imports, and stagnant live fish prices have caused economic hardship for Mississippi producers resulting in a decrease in acreage from a high of 130,500 acres in 2001 to 34,700 acres in 2017. Declining feed prices beginning in 2014 coupled with fish prices above $1.20 per pound have created a better financial future for catfish producers. Improved technologies such as innovative production systems, the use of hybrid catfish, and improved water quality management have also led to lowered costs of production.
Catfish Statistical Information:
Suggested USDA Southern Regional Aquaculture Center Publications:
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Catfish producers in Mississippi are receiving good prices for their products, but their continued profitability faces challenges from high heat and high costs for feed and fuel. Mississippi has 34,100 acres of catfish ponds found mostly in the Delta, with some scattered in Noxubee, Lowndes and Chickasaw counties in east Mississippi.
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Since 1994, she’s worked for Buck Island Seed Co., a business her brother co-founded with two other men in the same year. The company performs custom seed cleaning, treating, and blending for rice, soybeans, wheat, oats, and triticale, a small grain. Booth also raised various row crops with her husband on their Tunica County farm until his death in 2020. She now rents out the land to a producer who grows soybeans, corn, and triticale.
Catfish production continues in Mississippi, and despite labor shortages slowing processing, pond inventories remain strong. Superior Catfish, based in Noxubee County, continues distributing Mississippi-born and bred catfish nationwide.
Delta farmer Travis Satterfield reflects on 40+ years in the fields
The price of rice hasn’t increased much since Travis Satterfield of Benoit began growing it in 1974, but nearly everything else in the world of production agriculture has changed.