Catfish feed prices hovered near $250 a ton for two decades before jumping to $600 a ton in the past two years, The New York Times reported Saturday.
"It's impossible to make even a napkin calculation showing that this is profitable," said Craig Tucker, a former director of the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center of Mississippi State University.
A long-time trend in rising feed prices and the recent surge in prices has pushed many catfish farmers out of business during the past year -- helping drive up the price for fish, a benefit for those that remain in business.
A decade ago, Arkansas catfish farms produced 75 million catfish ready for markets, which put the total weight of market-ready catfish at over 100 million pounds. This year's numbers illustrate the exodus from catfish farming, as the state's ready-for-market catfish numbered about 15 million with a total weight of about 20 million pounds.
Catfish farmers got a boost this year when the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would buy $10 million pounds of catfish above and beyond its normal purchases. The purchase is part of a $170 million purchase of pork, chicken, lamb and fish meant to help farmers hit by the prolonged summer drought.
Experts say the purchase helps, but not enough to turn around a business in which 20 percent of U.S. producers shut down in 2010.
It costs about 75 cents for enough feed to produce a pound of catfish but farmers are getting about 85 cents a pound -- not enough to cover the cost of running a fish farm.
"I think we are seeing a change before our very eyes, quicker than we ever dreamed. We have never had as high a feed cost and at the same time seen our pond-bank price go down," Mr. Barlow said," said Roger Barlow, executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America.