Recently, the Michigan Farm Bureau ProFILE class embarked on a week-long visit to the Delta region of Louisiana and Mississippi to experience the agricultural practices and industry there.
One of the stops along the way: Heartland Catfish Company in Itta Bena, MS, a farm-raised catfish processing facility founded in 1996 by the Tackett family. The Tackett’s legacy of raising catfish dates back to 1968, and today, consists of more than 7,500 acres of water for catfish and 10,000 acres of cropland. The business has become one of the largest vertically integrated entities in the U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish industry, consisting of a hatchery with brooder and fingerling operations, up to harvestable catfish, along with a processing, packaging, and storage facility.
From the time fish are fingerling size, they are taught to feed on the top of the ponds when feed pellets are fan blasted into the pond. This reduces bottom feeding and results in a more consistent sized fish and growth rate in the pond. Ponds range size from 2-20 acres, and it typically takes 18-24 months to grow a 1-pound fish.
There are multiple factors that can affect the taste and smell of the catfish, including algae blooms and lack of oxygen in the ponds. Cloudy days can lead to oxygen problems in the ponds at night, so ponds are equipped with oxygen sensors and automated water paddles to incorporate more oxygen when needed. Some of the undesirable qualities in the fish can be corrected in as little as 24 hours by adjusting aeration, or placing the fish in another pond with fish considered to be “on taste” for a period of time.
Samples of fish are taken from the ponds 2-3 times before the fish are brought in for processing. When the fish arrive at the processing plant, they are tested once again before being unloaded. If there are still undesirable qualities with the fish, they are sent back to the ponds to correct those undesirables.
Once unloaded, the fish are processed through an automated and technologically advanced processing line. After being split and gutted, filets are laid out on a conveyor, which runs through a scanner that identifies the nugget and bone in the filet. These are then removed from the filet using automated water jet technology. The filets are then sorted out by weight, and then sent on to be packaged. Some will be fresh packed, while the majority will be frozen in a matter of minutes and packaged. The finished product is then shipped to customers across the country, and include quick service restaurants, independent catfish houses, regional chain restaurants, and more.
A hurdle that many Michigan farmers can relate to, and one of the biggest challenges faced by Heartland Catfish Company’s processing facility, is centered around labor and having enough employees.
“We’ll hire 40 employees on Monday, and by Friday, 39 of them will have quit” said an employee of Heartland Catfish Company, and tour guide for the group.
The company has also used the H2A and H2B programs to fill the void in the labor shortage, and maintain operations as necessary
For more info on Heartland Catfish Company and U.S. Farm Raised catfish, visit https://www.heartlandcatfish.com/heartland-catfish-company