Chris McGlawn was a single course away at Delta State University from launching a career as an anesthesiologist when he realized working every day inside a building was not his cup of tea.
The Mississippi Delta native tossed the scrubs aside to venture into agriculture as a first-generation farmer while as it turns out still practicing his life-saving skills. After marrying his bride Missy in 2005, Chris said goodbye to the operating room and hello to growing catfish fingerlings (young stock fish), using his medical oxygen knowledge to properly operate oxygen aerators, and farming row crops.
“If you want to make a decent living (in the Delta), you have to work in the medical field or become a farmer,” Chris says.
Moving away from the Mississippi Delta for another job was never in then cards for the McGlawns. It was ‘home’ and a great place to raise a family.
Missy supported her husband’s career change, yet naturally was a bit anxious.
“I was really nervous (about fish farming) at first, but I knew anything that we put our hearts and minds into would be alright into the end. We’ve prayed a lot,” says Missy.
And a large risk it was. Just after they started growing fingerlings to sell to local catfish farmers to grow commercial “food fish,” the catfish industry was socked in the wallet with a double financial whammy. Foreign competition from low-priced catfish from China and Vietnam, plus the beginning of the Great Recession resulted in ‘red ink’ for the McGlawns.
“We got burned (lost money) in our first three years farming fingerlings,” Chris told Delta Farm Press during an August interview on the family farm. “Fingerling farmers were the ones who get hurt first, the fastest, and the most. We were sitting there with a live product that we couldn’t sell.”
Stiff upper lip
These difficult times were not enough for Chris and Missy to close up shop. Instead, the McGlawns, now with two children, Reece and Anna Rivers, transformed their operation into a food fish operation in 2010. It was a smart move.
Chris says, “Everything turned around after that.”
After a decade plus of hard work, the McGlawn’s Delta Cat Fisheries farm today is a profitable catfish operation thanks in part to paying attention to every detail. The fish farm, located at Swiftown in LeFlore County, Miss., produces 1.7 million to about 2 million fish annually on 160 “water acres.” At harvest, fish weigh 1 to 1.5 pounds.
Their farming location is paramount to their survival, located about 10 miles north of the Catfish Capital of the World — Belzoni, Miss.
About 95 percent of the McGlawn’s fish are processed at Heartland Catfish with the balance at America’s Catch — both located at Itta Bena, Miss., about 10 miles away.
Dedication is not the only reason for the family’s success. Improved farmer fish prices have helped put the family on a better financial course.
Producer prices this August nibbled in the $1.10 to $1.17 per pound range. During the recession, prices were about half that while in 2011 prices headed toward record territory.
“Catfish prices were about $1.35 per pound — the highest price we had ever seen in this industry,” says Chris.
Yet current prices these days are tempered in part by warmer Mississippi winter and spring weather over the last several years. Warmer weather means more active fish and the need for more feed, which increases production costs.
Within the next year, the McGlawns will double the size of their fish farm by purchasing adjacent land — growing fish pond numbers from 16 to 32.
Chris says the production goal for the catfish industry is for every 2 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of fish, a 2-to-1 feed conversion. Missy feeds the fish daily and due to her expertise she has reduced the ration to 1.7-to-1 while maintaining fish size and quality, as a result reducing input costs.
The McGlawns also farm 1,800 acres of row crops with all of the ground in soybeans this year.
The McGlawns children enjoy school and like to help mom and dad around the farm. Reese, 11, chases birds away from fish ponds and helps his dad manage the fish. Anna Rivers, 9, rides in the feed truck with her mom, learning the ropes about blowing food pellets onto the water’s surface where the fish then dine.
The McGlawns grow fish in pond “raceways.” Each pond has about 100,000 fish. Using an automated oxygen system, Chris keeps close tabs on the oxygen level in every pond, using information sent to his smartphone and other electronic devices. If a pond oxygen level declines, a push of a button can add oxygen to water.
Oxygen is critical to human health and fish. If the electricity goes out on the farm, due to a storm for example, and oxygen levels fall in the pond, Chris operates generators as an electrical backup and sometimes spends the night pond-side to make sure the fish remain healthy.
Sustainability is not a buzz word at Delta Cat Fisheries. It’s an everyday practice.
For example, “We use as little groundwater as possible,” notes Chris. “We try to be very efficient and capture as much rain water as possible, holding the water in ponds throughout the winter and spring months. The only water loss is through evaporation.
When ponds are seined (harvested of fish) pond water is reduced for fish collection and pumped into another pond to conserve the water. Ponds are about 10 to 12 feet deep.
When the McGlawns first considered entering catfish farming, some people thought it was not the best time. But the determined McGlawns jumped in with both feet and after 11 years they have become successful catfish farmers today.
So much so that the Catfish Farmers of America chose the McGlawns as the 2017 Catfish Farmers of the Year for Mississippi.
“This award made me so proud,” Chris said. “It was the greatest accomplishment being honored by our peers.” Missy boasts, “We are the only couple that’s ever won this award.”
The McGlawn’s join this year’s other CFA Farmers of the Year state winners including Alabama’s Mary Quitman Holmes (the first female award winner); and Arkansas’s Glen Fleming. The winners represented the U.S. catfish industry at the North American Seafood Expo held this year in Boston, Mass.
For Chris and Missy, catfish farming is about doing the best job they can.
“We’re not trying to step out and be the biggest catfish farmers. We’re just trying to be the best and most efficient with what we have,” Missy says. With a smile on his face, Chris said, “I love growing catfish and wouldn’t do anything else.”
Catfish production is far different than a medical operating room yet this family seems to be operating just fine on their rural journey chocked full of happiness and hope for their future.