Townsend Kyser looks over the 750 acres of catfish ponds scattered over his Hale County farm and wonders about the future.
The 33-year-old is a third-generation catfish farmer. The family business started in 1969 when his grandfather, Joe Kyser, built some of the first ponds designed to raise catfish in the state. Now it’s up to him, his father, Bill, and his brother, Ashley, to keep things going.
It isn’t easy, he says.
The American catfish industry has hit hard times of late, largely because of two factors: the tremendous increase in feed costs and of cheaper Asian fish flooding the market, Townsend Kyser says.
“We want to compete on a level playing field; we feel like we can win on a level playing field,” he says. “But the foreign fish is so much cheaper than what we can produce. … But the market is the market. The cheap imports are competition, but they also deflate prices that the market can stand.”
The biggest reason foreign fish is cheaper is labor costs, says Mitt Walker of the Alabama Farmer’s Federation.
“In America, we have to pay farm help, and people that work in the processing plants at least minimum wage,” he says. “That’s much more of a labor cost that the subsistence wages in Asia. Also American farmers have to live up to government standards for feed, water quality and other factors that drive up production costs.”
Imported fish averages about a dollar a pound cheaper, he says. Catfish is just like any other commodity, as the price often varies from day to day. Over the past several months, domestic catfish has come in between $3 and $3.50 a pound, he says. Imported fish has averaged between 85 cents and a dollar less in that time frame, Walker says.
In 2009, there were about 129 million pounds of fish imported into the country under the name of catfish, a huge increase from 3.4 million pounds in 1999, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Catfish farming in America — called “aquaculture” — is a multibillion-dollar industry.