For around 20 years, the cost of catfish feed has ranged from $200 to $300 per ton, although it seldom hit $300. That has changed and – along with cheap imports and a continuing fight to move import inspection from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the USDA – the U.S. catfish industry has been hard hit.

In 2012, feed costs skyrocketed. Low protein feed cost over $500 per ton. Some producers paid $600.

“Roughly, about every $10 per ton of feed represents a penny per pound of production,” says Joey Lowery, president of Catfish Farmers of America. “None of us saw the price rise coming. A high number of producers had feed booked but we didn’t have enough booked to cover the entire season. When your booking runs out and you’re looking at paying $500 to $600 per ton, the bottom line numbers just won’t work. Because of that, producers were forced to cut back feeding and production.

“The heck of it is that, coming into this year, we thought there was probably too many fish. Now, it appears the feed tonnage will be flat compared to (2011).”

Lowery, based in central Arkansas, points out that a decade ago the state produced some 100million pounds of fish. In 2012, according to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) production had shrunk to 20 million pounds of fish.

“It’s hard to see where all this will eventually shake out,” says Lowery. “It would have been helpful if there had been a reduction in the feed tonnage this year. I don’t think that will happen. The only remedy there is a sales increase (of catfish).”