When the Fulton County Homecoming Festival was held on Memorial Day weekend, one of it's most popular events, the Senior Center's catfish fry, was missing from the schedule.
"Because of the availability and price of catfish, we were forced to cancel," said Center Director Betty Teague. "The dinner is one of our main fundraisers and, since this is one of our worst years for funding, we really, really needed it."
The Salem Senior Center, restaurants and markets who have had to raise prices and, most of all, customers are in shock about a shortage of catfish, of all things.
"We usually buy eight 15 pound boxes of catfish at about $60 a box," said Teague. "This year, they wanted $90 a box, if they could get it. We would have had to charge $10 or more a plate and that is more than most people will pay."
"I've heard a lot of comments from people about a shortage and high prices, but no one is more upset than farmers," said Dr. Carole Engle, a University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff professor. "They have been dealing with this for more than two years."
Engle is an economist who works at the university's School of Aquaculture and Fisheries, which is involved in research and marketing to help Arkansas fish producers. Arkansas is the third largest catfish producer in the nation, and the aquaculture industry produces $167 million a year for the state's economy.
"The problem started in 2008 when feed prices shot up," said Engle. "They nearly doubled, very quickly."
Soy bean meal is a main ingredient of catfish feed. The increase in cost was caused by farmers switching from soy bean production to planting corn. Corn prices have been high because it is in demand for ethanol production, as well as food products.
In most industries, businesses just raise their prices and pass increases on to consumers.
But catfish farmers have been hurt by low priced imports from Viet Nam and China. Fish called Basa are similar to U.S. catfish and often improperly sold as catfish.
While farmers could have raised their prices, they would have had a hard time selling their catfish, since the imports are so much cheaper.
While the demand for catfish has never dropped, Engle told The News many catfish farmers in Arkansas and other states were forced out of the business over the past two years, because the price they were receiving, 75 or 80-cents a pound, was not enough to cover the high price of feed and still make a profit.
According to Engle, the drop in production and rising prices led to the current situation: fewer catfish being produced and rising prices for feed, gas and other supplies keeping it that way, until a real shortage developed.
There is hope, however, for those who just have to have a catfish dinner every week or so.
"Current prices have risen to about $1.10 a pound," said Engle. "That is high enough to make it profitable to raise catfish."
Engle says the loss of catfish acreage has stabilized and she has seen signs that more farmers are planning to get back into catfish production.
Since it takes about 18-months to raise a crop, it will be a slow recovery.
But, according to Engle, the price consumers pay for catfish will eventually go back down, if the price farmers receive remains stable and they are able to stay in business.
"I think the shortage that exists is temporary," said Engle. "We may see it alleviate some by late summer and supplies continue to improve into next year."
Catfish lovers can only hope that is true.
Catfish is, of course, very popular in our area and all across the south.
While prices remain high, the catfish fry, a popular fundraising tool for many organizations and a prime way for people to socialize, may be few and far between for awhile.
"Last year, we had about 180 people at our Homecoming fish fry. At $7 a plate, people were able to enjoy it and we were able to make some money for the center," said Betty Teague.
With the price of catfish so high, fish fries are on hold and the Senior Center is struggling to find other fundraisers to make up for the loss of essential income to keep programs going.
Donations to help the Senior Center are always welcome.