All’s Fair in Love and Catfish

As the catfish business booms, Texas gears up to take on Mississippi, the biggest fish of all.

July 1992By Comments

PLOP.

Standing in a muddy patch of coastal prairie in Brazoria County south of Houston, Richard Anspacher listens to the sound of a fat channel catfish breaking the surface of a rectangular pond in search of a floating cornflake. As the fish slowly opens its gaping mouth and gulps down the flake, Anspacher smiles contentedly. He knows he’s looking at more than some hungry diner’s main course. The fish represents Texas’ future in aquaculture, the fastest-growing agricultural industry in the United States and the one being touted as the world’s only reliable source of seafood. Catfish, Anspacher believes, can be our state’s next big cash crop, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

A former commodities trader in Chicago, Anspacher is the vice president of East Texas Feeds, which manufactured the cornflake at its new $5 million mill near the crossroads community of Liverpool. Along with the Naiad Corporation, the state’s largest fish producer and processor, East Texas Feeds is betting that Texas can increase its share of the nation’s growing catfish industry, which last year earned catfish farmers more than $285 million. Forty percent of the total crop was consumed just by Texans, making us the most voracious catfish eaters in the nation. Yet Texas saw precious little of that revenue. Sales of our catfish yielded only $2.6 million in 1991. The reason? We eat catfish; we don’t raise them. Although 169 Texas aquaculture operators grow catfish, redfish, shrimp, and hybrid striped bass, fewer than 3,500 acres are in production. Instead, most of our business goes to Mississippi, which sends 70 percent of its annual catch to Texans, directly pumping tens of millions of dollars into that state’s economy last year.

That’s why Anspacher is smiling. If we eat so much catfish, he figures, then some of that catfish could be Texas catfish. “This is nothing less than a trade war between Texas and Mississippi,” he says.

Fighting the war won’t be easy. Mississippi farmers in the Yazoo River delta region took thirty years to transform an abundance of clay soil and a cheap and plentiful supply of well water into a thriving business of cultivating, harvesting, and processing farm-raised catfish, encompassing almost 100,000 inundated acres of ponds, at least four large feed mills, and no fewer than three major processing plants. As a result of that effort, Mississippi is an inland seafood superpower. Catfish is its fifth-largest cash crop, supplying U.S. consumers with nearly 400 million pounds of the stuff each year. “It’s the only cat-fish available,” boasts Bill Allen, Jr., the president of the Catfish Institute of Belzoni, Mississippi, an organization dedicated to promoting consumption of Mississippi catfish.

Yet there’s reason to believe that Texas and Texans can change those numbers. Naiad and East Texas Feeds are clearly ready to do battle. New technology pioneered here has immeasurably improved the quality of the catfish we can produce. Southeast Texas has a longer growing season than west-central Mississippi and can turn out a mature fish in ten to twelve months, compared with the eighteen-month cycle typical of the Yazoo delta. The soil conditions are ideal along the Coastal Bend, where most of the land is planted in marginally profitable rice. There is an abundant supply of grain and plenty of clean water.

All that’s missing is the fish, which explains those Delta Pride trucks rolling down interstates 10 and 20. But if Anspacher and others like him have anything to say about it, the convoy is coming to an end: “It’s time for Texas to stand up and take care of its own.”

Once upon a time, the bewhiskered catfish was a Southern peculiarity, a slow and sluggish bottom feeder with a particularly ugly mug. But it was plentiful and edible, so it came to be regarded as a delicacy—so long as it was dredged in cornmeal, deep-fried to mask its oily texture and muddy taste, and accompanied by a side of hushpuppies.

Today, the staple of volunteer fire department fish fries has been upgraded to a gourmet item noted for holding sauces well and worthy of endorsement by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, who serves Mississippi farm-raised catfish in his new Santa Monica, California, restaurant. Thanks to advances in its growing, catfish is now America’s fourth-most-popular seafood, behind shrimp, cod, and Alaskan pollack. Farm-raised catfish dine on fortified cornakes from the surface, not on droppings from the bottom. Its esh is firm, and it tastes, well, so unfishy (and bland) that if you didn’t know better, you would think it was chicken.

Flavor, or lack of it, is a key reason why farm-raised catfish is being gobbled up by consumers—and also why we should be able to get a piece of Mississippi’s action. Our advantage is a recirculating pond system championed by Naiad president Paul Barrett, who came to Texas after working for agribusiness giant ConAgra in Mississippi. The recirculating system filters out impurities through interlocking canals and the use of dung-eating carp, effectively eliminating the “off avor” that often plagues static ponds common in Mississippi. Though the system requires 15 percent more land and $1,000 more per acre in start-up costs, the payoff is the reduced waste of water and the ability to stock twice as many fish in the same space.

If Anspacher’s trade war erupts, the first battlefield will be Houston, where catfish is regarded as both a traditional Southern dish and a new healthy alternative. There, the Naiad plant slices and dices up to 50,000 pounds every day, selling fresh filets to the Pappas family restaurant chain, frozen nuggets and strips to Sysco food distributors, and fresh iced fish in a variety of marinades to AppleTree, Randall’s, H.E.B. Pantry, and Fiesta Mart grocers. Even so, Naiad alone can’t meet Houston’s demand. To keep its assembly line humming, the company must still rely on tractor-trailer rigs full of fish from places such as Isola, Mississippi, and Lonoke, Arkansas.

What Naiad needs, then, is more Texas fish. Yet transforming what amounts to a mom-and-pop specialty crop into a full-blown agribusiness requires five major elements: a grower, a processor, seed, feed, and buyers. At this stage in the battle, Brazoria County is unique in that it has two elements that do not exist elsewhere in Texas: a processor (the Naiad plant, which opened in 1990) and feed (from the East Texas Feeds mill, which opened last year). The missing link is persuading landowners to provide the fish, which means converting tens of thousands of acres into ponds.

To do that takes cash—lots of it. Starting a 400-acre fish farm from scratch requires a minimum investment of $1 million, plus brood stock and feed. While farmers can expect to turn a profit within three years, it will take more than gentle persuasion for them to switch. Most land deemed practical for fish farming is planted in rice. Though hardly a profitable commodity, rice is subsidized by the federal government, meaning that farmers have a guaranteed minimum price for their crop, regardless of actual market demand. Although fish can reward farmers with a higher per-acre return, farmers must give up their subsidies if they quit growing rice. “We’re in the right place at the right time, but there’s no funding,” says Bobbie Briscoe Moore, who wants to try fish farming on a small portion of the 14,000 acres she owns in Brazoria County. “I don’t know who’s going to do it, but I want to be one of the who’s.”

Mississippi’s response to Texas’ assault appears to be the equivalent of the old Gonzales battle cry: Come and Take It. Despite several lawsuits alleging price-fixing by Mississippi’s aquaculture businesses, its industry is entrenched, supported by a history of research, development, and marketing. One Texas processor and one Texas feed mill are hardly seen as a threat, especially given our checkered past in aquaculture. Last year, as Mississippians are only too happy to point out, Medina County catfish farmer Ron Pucek pumped almost 50 million gallons of water a day from the Edwards Aquifer, prompting the Texas Water Commission to call for regulation of groundwater pumping from the aquifer. In South Texas, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department shut down a shrimp farm when some domesticated shrimp were released into a canal, threatening to contaminate the population of native bay shrimp in the Laguna Madre. Then there’s Naiad itself. Although less than three years old, the company has already been in and out of Chapter 11. As long as such conundrums exist, Mississipians say, Texans can muddy the waters all they wish.

“Quite selfishly, we want everyone to eat catfish, and we want to sell it all,” says Bill Allen of the Catfish Institute, which is why his organization spends $2 million a year on advertising and marketing. Much of that money, amassed through a $6-a-ton voluntary contribution from feed mills, goes to the institute’s ad agency, the Richards Group of Dallas. “We know how to get the best out of Texas,” Allen says, laughing.

The inherent risks of taking on Mississippi sometimes make what Anspacher says is a sure thing sound as dodgy as a chinchilla ranch. But all that could be dispelled, he believes, with a little seed money. As it happens, various federal, educational, and economic development agencies are finalizing a strategic plan for Texas after the Legislature passed a bill to promote and regulate aquaculture last year. To appeal to patriotic instincts, homegrown fish are now packaged with the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Taste of Texas logo. In late May, the Texas Agricultural Finance Authority, through the Agriculture Department, announced loan guaranties of $500,000 each to Naiad and East Texas Feeds.

Whether or not that financing is enough to fund a full-scale war, it is sufficient to hunker down for a fight. After Houston consumers are won over to Texas catfish, other skirmishes await in San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Corpus Christi, the Golden Triangle, and the big daddy of them all, Dallas—Fort Worth, which is firmly under Mississippi’s control. After that, presumably, there’s the rest of the South and the world. “We’re one transporation day closer to California than they are,” Anspacher crows, implying that a new salesperson will soon be calling on Wolfgang Puck.

If Anspacher is right, he’ll be a prophet of profit. If he’s wrong, his neighbors will be the first to know. Unlike rice, corn, milo, and soybeans, fish doesn’t keep for years at a time in storage elevators. You sell it, or you smell it. So far, no one is crinkling their noses.

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