It was akin to the California Gold Rush with the promise of wealth to come—catfish farming in the Delta. The industry expanded into building high-tech processing plants across the Delta. The only problem was finding enough customers to sustain the industry.
The life and times of the catfish industry has been summed up in a new book by veteran journalist and native Mississippian Harry M. (Mike) McCall. From Belzoni to the Big Apple entails the rise, fall and survival of the catfish industry. McCall, a University of Southern Mississippi educated and graduated journalist got an up-close view of the industry serving as the editor for 25 years at the Catfish Institute’s The Catfish Journal.
“In the early 70s things really started happening. Some big companies jumped in across the south then farmers got together in Belzoni and built Farm Fresh. Then there were small plants that weren’t any bigger than a tractor shed,” he said.
One of the largest, Delta Pride, employed more than 700 workers.
“They were the biggest processor in the business in the early 90s,” he said.
But by the year 2000, when farmers over-produced and Asians began shipping cheap fish to the U.S. by the boatloads, the glamour began to fade. Almost overnight, an industry was in full retreat, taking with it thousands of jobs from the South’s poorest regions.
At its peak, more than 110,00 acres of catfish ponds dotted Mississippi but today there are only 30,000. The former co-founder of the Mississippi Business Journal, McCall tells stories of how interesting and diverse personalities such as NBC Today Show’s Willard Scott, Willie Nelson and even two U.S. Presidents were all hooked into the industry. It took McCall nearly three years to write the 256-page, hard cover book that has a 16-page picture insert section.
“Right there on live TV he said something like, ‘if I go down in history for one thing, it’s that I said US Farm raised catfish is about the best fish you can eat.’”
Willie Nelson was met down on the coast by some Humphreys County catfish farmers and got him to play golf at Silver City Country Club.
“They had a big day,” he said. “Belzoni can put on a big party when they want to and that was one of them.”
For more information, check out www.catfishdaysbelzoni.com. To order a first edition, signed hard-bound copy, please send check or money order for $34.50 (includes shipping and handling) to: Pond Bank Publishing, P.O. Box 1671, Point Clear, AL 36564
The Delta Business Journal is the Mississippi Delta’s only business publication. The monthly journal reports news items and major articles on Delta businesses and industry. There are also personality profiles, feature stories, entrepreneurial spotlights, company spotlights, a special agricultural section, guest columns by Delta individuals with expertise in various areas and editorials on subjects of interest to the Journal’s readers. Letters to the editor are also a regular feature. For more information, click here.
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