Brad Graham is driving his truck along the edge of a catfish pond near Lake Village, blowing a soybean grain mixture into the water.
“My stepdad was into fish farming, and I just decided I wanted to do a little bit of farming,” he says.
He began farming with four ponds right after college during a time when politicians and entrepreneurs hoped catfish in the Mississippi Delta could become what chicken is in the Ozarks. That was before Vietnamese and Chinese fish flooded the American market about 10 years ago.
Today there are about a third the number of catfish farms there were in 2000, and they are making about half as much money.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 1998, 156 Arkansas catfish farms produced sales valued at more than $55 million. In 2013, 49 farms made more than $28 million.
Larry Doorman, an aquaculture specialist for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff extension service, is a regular consultant for Graham’s fish farm. He remembers not so long ago when much of the farmland outside of town was covered in fish ponds
“You could walk and just about not get out of a pond going from farm to farm. You could have taken a boat almost for 13 miles.”
Back then, restaurants increasingly began buying the Asian fish because it was a dollar a pound cheaper.
“I guess you could say it’s heartbreaking,” said Graham.” You go in a restaurant, especially if you go in one you’ve been eating there, dining there pretty regular all your life, and now they’re serving an imported fish," he said.
"We’ve actually left restaurants before."
In fact, two-thirds of catfish now sold at restaurants and grocery stores in the U.S. are foreign fish, says Jeremy Robbins of the Catfish Farmers of America. He says Asian producers growing practices are often less safe.
“Using chemicals that are illegal here in the United States for aquaculture and using antibiotics that are also illegal for use in aquaculture and any food product here in the United States,” said Robbins.
New regulations this year mean foreign catfish must be grown to the same standards as U.S.-raised fish, leveling the playing field. A 2015 Arkansas state law requires fish to be accurately labeled.
According to Rebecca Lochmann, interim chair of the aquaculture and fisheries department at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, domestic producers are getting smarter about messaging to consumers.
“Everything just got so global so fast, and there’s no putting that cow back in the barn. It’s out. So we’re just going to have to learn to compete on a global basis,” she said.
Arkansas follows Mississippi and Alabama as one of the nation’s top catfish-producing states, but its fish processing and shipping infrastructure has disappeared, leaving the state reliant on neighboring states, and perhaps slowing the industry’s recovery.
While Lochmann says some farmers are coming back to catfishing, the business has consolidated. Graham, who started with four ponds about two decades ago, has 54 ponds now, and he’s making a pretty good living.
“Well, it made me get out and work harder,” he said. “We still have that mentality out here, and it’s always a fear, I guess, of it coming back like that. But we do all we can. We try to do all our own equipment repairs, own maintenance,” he said.
“We haul our own fish, our own feed.”
In addition to employing outside staff, the fish farm is a family operation for Graham. His wife helps with the bookkeeping, his college-aged daughter has worked on summer breaks, and his teenage son wants to follow in his footsteps.
Doorman says part of the success of farmers like Graham, who stuck around, is that they started learning some new techniques and got better at growing fish.
“These guys that’s remained in business, well," it's as if they said "'We have to do something to get this production up. We can grow less fish on more acres.’ They did a really good job with the intensification of aeration.”
Aeration, giving the fish a lot more oxygen, it turns out, helps prevent disease and allows farmers to produce double the number of fish. Another new method involves splitting a pond to siphon off the fish, while leaving the rest to aerate.
“Any trouble we have now, our birds, our oxygen, when it’s wet and we’re feeding, all our fish are right here contained and we can get to them,” said Graham.
While new methods have allowed farmers to compete, they also cost more money to do so. That means the catfish business, which once supported a whole Delta community, is now leaner and that much harder to break into.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.