MOORHEAD, Miss. – Rick Moyer gazes at the sun-charred bottom of the pond next to his 600-acre catfish farm and shakes his head — another farmer scrambling to stay solvent has drained the pond and will till it for row crops.
With soaring prices for just about everything needed to raise their fish — fuel to feed — catfish farmers are anxious. Some are shutting down altogether.
Anywhere else in the country, the situation might not seem so dire. But there are only a handful of industries generating jobs in the poverty-stricken Delta, which also has some of the nation's highest illiteracy rates.
The casinos that had been bustling along the Mississippi River in the northern part of the Delta have started to see layoffs. That's one less option for former workers at catfish farms in the nearly dozen counties in the Delta, where unemployment runs in double digits in some areas.
"The real problem I see is that after the decline of the catfish industry, these displaced workers, they have no place to go," said state Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville. "These are nontransferable skills to other jobs in the Delta."
Agriculture creates more than 257,000 jobs in Mississippi, most of them in the Delta, said David Waide, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau. Cotton and catfish harvesting, processing and the building of equipment for those industries are all done in the Delta, which isn't the case for soybeans, corn, wheat or milo.
About 95 percent of the nation's catfish comes from Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, and farmers in all those states are suffering.
Moyer's farm, down a gravel road off U.S. 82 in Sunflower County, employs four full-time workers and five seasonal ones. Farms just like his have helped support 10,000 jobs across the Delta, but lately it's been tough.
Farmers are getting 80 cents a pound for fish that sell whole for $3.27 to $3.99 a pound in grocery stores, but production costs run as much as 90 cents, Wade said. One processor, Consolidated Catfish in Isola, already has laid off 50 of its 550 workers and plans more, owner Dickie Stevens said.
Moyer spent $500,000 on feed last year. He'll spend almost twice as much this year as the price of feed has gone from $225 to $400 a ton.
Catfish feed is made of soybeans, corn and wheat — commodities at record high prices. Feed manufacturers are using alternative corn gluten instead of corn meal, reducing the price by $50 to $60 a ton, but even so, the price of feed is pushing farmers out.
Two of Moyer's longtime catfish fingerling customers are no longer in the business. To survive, Moyer plans to reduce his production next year and continue to sell the tiny fish left over.
"It's my only livelihood," said the 46-year-old Moyer, who's been farming in the expansive Delta since 1985. "So as long I can, I'm going to try to make it."
At Moyer's farm on a recent afternoon, a worker stood waist-deep in a pond helping two others in a boat trap fingerlings with a big net and put them in buckets. Two other workers on the back of a truck parked next to the pond unloaded the fingerlings — hundreds of pounds, one bucket at a time — into tanks for transport to ponds where the fish will grow to market size.
Calvin Jones, a former school teacher working at Moyer's farm, said he makes more money as a contract employee at fish farms than he did in the classroom.
"You raise fish. You get them out of the pond and you sell them. That's pretty much all you do. There's no genius to it," Jones said.
U.S. catfish growers — in sometimes bitter competition with catfish raised in Asia — had sales of $445 million in 2007, down 8 percent from the previous year, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show. The farming acreage also dropped by 6 percent. Production peaked in 2003 at 660 million pounds but has been decreasing since, said Roger Barlow of the trade group, Catfish Farmers of America.
While farmers are taking a hit, consumers might not feel the effect of the catfish decline for a while because retailers have a choice between U.S. and Asian catfish, and they usually go with the cheaper of the two, said Terry Hanson, an aquaculture economist with Mississippi State University.
Still, the cost of a catfish entree will have to catch up to the production cost at some point, Hanson said.
Joey Lowery, a farmer in Newport, Ark., believes the reduced acreage might help in the long term. Farmers will get high prices to keep up with supply and demand, he said, adding that he's farming only 350 of his 500 acres.
"I really feel like we'll be cut back to a third or half in production," said Lowery. "It's bad that all the work that went into building this industry to where it is, it's going to have to make that kind of adjustment."