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Saving the catfish economy amid U.S. drought

Catfish farmer Townsend Kyser discusses what the USDA's purchase of meat to help livestock producers hit by the drought will do for him and other farmers.

Kai Ryssdal: The Department of Agriculture announced the other day that it's gonna spend $170 million to buy livestock from farmers who've have been hit hard by the drought. Pork and chicken mostly. Some lamb. And about $10 million worth of catfish. Surprised? Yeah, us too. So we called up Townsend Kyser. He's a catfish farmer in Greensboro, Ala. Mr. Kyser, good to talk to you.

Townsend Kyser: Good to talk to you, glad to be here.

Ryssdal: So $10 million from the USDA. Obviously you're not going to get all that, but is this going to help you in this drought?

Kyser: Yes sir, it is. It's going to help us a lot. It will help our processing industry move a lot more inventory out of the ponds and onto the children's plates who need to eat catfish -- need to learn to eat fish twice a week.

Ryssdal: What does catfish do to that region down there near Greensboro? Is it a catfish economy?

Kyser: It is very much a catfish economy. Catfish is the economic engine that drives West Alabama. Most jobs have something to do with the fish business. When the fish business gets tough, you can see it in every business around -- from the tire stores to the grocery stores, everywhere. There are a lot of jobs associated with the farms, processing plants, the feed mills and catching/harvesting the fish. It's very important to this area. This area -- you may or may not know -- is an economically deprived area in the black belt of West Alabama and catfish is one of the few things helping it to hang on.

Ryssdal: Now what has the drought done to you, Mr. Kyser? How bad has it been?

Kyser: It's been pretty bad. Our ponds are showing signs of a lot of evaporation and no rain. It is also driving the price of grain up, which our feed is our biggest input.

Ryssdal: Is that what you feed catfish? You feed them grain?

Kyser: Yes, sir. It's an extremely expensive diet. Right now we're getting about 65-70 cents a pound. With the cost of grain where it is, it costs about 90 cents to raise them. So the catfish industry is in a pretty rough spot right now.

Ryssdal: Yeah, that's kind of backwards, isn't it?

Kyser: Yes sir, it is.

Ryssdal: What happens to you, Mr. Kyser, if this drought goes on? The USDA is only going to buy so much catfish.

Kyser: That's right. It's... I don't know. We will keep forging ahead. I've got 18 employees that look at me every day to help them provide for their families and we're going to keep doing the best we can.

Ryssdal: Is the USDA's purchase enough for you? Is that going to get you over until the rain starts again?

Kyser: I hope it does. It's certainly a start. People need to start eating a lot more fish and taking mind where their seafood comes from as well.

Ryssdal: Listen, one more thing that I have to ask you just 'cause it's been in the news after Paul Ryan got selected by Gov. Romney. What is this whole noodling thing that people do with catfish? What is that about?

Kyser: I don't know. That's some crazy guys going to have some fun. I've never done it. I'd be scared to stick my hand in the hole like that.

Ryssdal: Yeah, 'cause those guys bite, right?

Kyser: They do.

Ryssdal: All right. Townsend Kyser, he's in Greensboro, Ala., raising catfish. Sir, thanks very much for your time.

Kyser: Thank you, Kai. I appreciate your interest in agriculture and the fishing business in particular.

Ryssdal: You betcha.

Kyser: Thank you, bud.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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