Fuel price hikes cause catfish growers pain as harvest nears

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 27, 2008

[Editor&8217;s note: This is the third in a three-part series about rising gasoline prices and the effect on local farming industries. This piece takes a look at how catfish farmers are responding to economic changes.]

Historically, some of the largest farm industries in the area &8212; especially in Marengo County &8212; have been cattle and timber farming. The rich soil of the Black Belt is conducive to these industries, and the land was made for it, some say.

But a close third in agriculture is catfish farming, an industry that has made a niche for itself in nearby Hale County. Gently rolling hills or flat land along with more alkaline, or lime-based, soil makes the area perfect for farming catfish.

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Townsend Kyser, a second-generation catfish farmer from Greensboro, has been involved with his family&8217;s catfish farm since he was very young.

In all, Kyser has about 60 ponds in Hale County and this month marks the beginning of the feeding season, which will run until October. Kyser and his crew will run all hour shifts to keep the water levels optimal and the fish fed properly.

Although this routine is one he has done many times before, high gasoline prices have already trickled down into the way business is done.

Kyser said the direct way high fuel costs affect his business relate to the equipment they use to keep up the ponds and also the cost of feed. Between the portable aerators and the tractors that move them from one pond to another and the other vehicles they use to collect and transport their harvest, diesel usage remains high.

With fuel costs up by as much as 120 percent in the last five years, Kyser and his peers are watching their production costs rise, while their end profit remains roughly the same.

Another culprit eating into the profit margin is the cost of feed. Kyser said feed was around $250 a lot last year, with this year&8217;s price tag around $400.

Another factor to contend with is the drought of the last two years. Kyser said last year they had to move at least two ponds of fish because water levels were too low. This year, however, water levels are returning back to normal, a plus for their aquaculture-based business.

Kyser said he has high hopes for this year&8217;s harvest despite high fuel costs. The industry itself is strong and is always looking to expand. Alabama is home to the world&8217;s largest catfish processing plant, and the state&8217;s three largest processors sell catfish to all 50 states, Canada, Europe and Asia.