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Trial and error

Tuesday, July 9, 2013 - 7:23 am

EGYPT, Miss. – Unlike many Northeast Mississippi farmers, Brent Wedel didn’t get into the business because of family ties.

"I just got this brainwave to try it," Wedel said.

And he’s not a typical grower, either.

Wedel is a catfish farmer. Not growing up in the industry, he learned much of what he knows today through trial and error.

"I started with 10 acres in ’95 and I’ve been doing it ever since," Wedel said. Today, he routinely produces more than 1 million pounds of catfish a year from his 26-pond farm in Egypt in Chickasaw County.

Wedel’s success is noteworthy in an industry that as a whole, has declined steeply over the past decade.

The Mississippi catfish industry peaked in 2002, with more than 113,000 acres of ponds statewide. Today, that acreage is down to about 45,000, according to Mississippi State University aquiculture expert Jim Steeby.

"Half of the industry is gone," Steeby said, "We’re struggling to save a good bit of what is left."

Catfish require high-quality feed primarily made from corn, the price of which has risen sharply in recent years. Meanwhile, cheap imports from China and Southeast Asia have flooded the market, driving catfish prices down.

Legislation aimed at leveling the playing field for U.S. catfish farmers was passed in the 2008 farm bill.

The program would transfer the responsibility of inspecting imported seafood from the Food and Drug Administration to the USDA.

"It makes the standards very high," said Steeby. "It would be a similar situation to the way meats are inspected in the U.S."

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., is one of several lawmakers who has called the USDA into question for its continued failure to implement the program. In a statement released last month, Cochran expressed concern for the health of the catfish industry and consumers.

"There is concern that not much has been done even though Congress has authorized the Food Safety and Inspection Service to inspect and grade catfish supplies to ensure they are safe to eat," Cochran said.

According to a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office, only 2 percent of imported seafood is properly inspected under the current program. The report found that "there were health and safety violations found in 482 shipments of imported catfish products between 2002 and August 2010."

Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has attributed the delay in implementing the program due to the inability of the USDA to settle on a scientific definition for catfish.

The narrow standard currently applied requires domestically grown catfish to face stricter regulatory standards than imported fish. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the agency is on track to begin the new inspection program later in 2013.

For catfish famers, it may be too little, too late. At this point, Wedel said, the legislation has taken so long to enact that "most people have lost interest."

Prices in the past few years have recovered to about 95 cents per pound, an improvement from the low of 70 cents but still far below the industry high of $1.35 per pound.

In the meantime, Wedel and other catfish farmers in the state will combat the problems they can like disease, heat and algae.

Steeby said Americans can help the industry, and their health, by eating more fish.

"Our diet doesn’t include enough seafood," he said.

"If we did get enough seafood," according to Steeby, farmers would hardly be able to keep up with demand.

He said retail products are supposed to be labeled by country of origin and buying domestic seafood is the biggest way to help the industry.