By Matt Harris
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Pages 21, 26 on 07/14/2009
(Read the full article here)
LITTLE ROCK — Sales by U.S. catfish farmers are down 13.5 percent through the first five months of 2009, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The decrease is not unexpected. High feed prices, driven by higher soybean and corn costs, continue to force producers to cut back, said Carol Engle, director of Aquaculture/Fisheries Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
“They’re trying everything they can,” she said of the strategies used by farmers.
Engle said that feed prices began declining in March, granting farmers a reprieve from prices that were up to $425 a ton in 2008. But the price of soybean meal rose, pushing feed prices above $400 a ton again.
“It’s just going through the roof,” Engle said.
By backing off on stocking, farmers reduce the amount of feed they use without risking under-feeding. It also means farmers aerate ponds less often, keeping energy costs down.
“If the fish are closer to market size, you can back off on feeding and you won't lose growth,” Engle said. “With smaller fish,you really need to be feeding them every day.”
Farmers await the arrival of $7.8 million in federal funds that were doled out as part of economic stimulus package.
Ted McNulty, director of aquaculture for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, said checks to 121 producers worth $7.1 million should be in the mail by the end of the week, with the expected approval by Gov. Mike Beebe’s office.
The department will continue to accept applications for the remaining money from producers until July 31, McNulty said.
The arrival of those checks is critical, Engle said.
“The sooner that happens, the sooner farmers will start feeding” at normal levels, meaning a potential increase in production, she said.
There is also hope that a federal inspection program, which will require foreign countries to demonstrate that their inspection systems are equivalent to the U.S. process, could curb the amount of imported fish that are sometimes grown using chemicals and heavily subsidized.
Engle said that if the program is in place by year’s end, it could level the playing field for domestic catfish producers.