Saturday, 19 July 2008

As price of corn rises, U.S. catfish farms dry up

LELAND, Mississippi: Catfish farmers across the American South, unable to cope with the soaring cost of corn and soybean feed, are draining their ponds.
"It's a dead business," said John Dillard, who pioneered the commercial farming of catfish in the late 1960s. Last year, Dillard and his company raised 11 million fish. Next year it will raise none. People can eat imported fish, Dillard said, just as they use imported oil.
As for his 55 employees?
"Those jobs are gone."
Corn and soybeans have nearly tripled in price in the last two years, for many reasons: harvest shortfalls, increasing demand by the Asian middle class, government mandates for corn to produce ethanol and, most recently, the flooding in the Midwest.
This is creating a bonanza for corn and soybean farmers but is wreaking havoc on consumers, who are seeing price spikes in the grocery store and in restaurants. Hog and chicken producers as well as cattle ranchers, all of whom depend on grain for feed, are being severely squeezed.
Perhaps nowhere has the rise in crop prices caused more convulsions than in the Mississippi Delta, the hub of the U.S. catfish industry. This is a hard-luck, poverty-plagued region, and raising catfish in artificial ponds was one of the few mainstays.

Then the economics went awry. Feed is now more than half the total cost of raising catfish, compared with a third of the cost of beef and pork production, according to a Mississippi state analysis. That makes catfish more vulnerable. But if the commodities continue to rocket up - and some analysts believe they will - other industries will fall victim as well.Keith King, president of Dillard & Co., calculates that for every dollar the company spends raising its fish, it gets back only 75 cents when they go to market."
What's happening to this industry is sad, but being sentimental won't pay the light bill," King said.
Dillard and other growers take their fish, still squirming, to Consolidated Catfish Producers in the hamlet of Isola, where workers run the machinery that slices them into filets. With fewer fish coming in, Consolidated Catfish is resorting to layoffs.

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