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In bid to get prices up: Catfish Bargaining Association seeking members, leverage

Several years and a lot of headaches ago, when 80 cents per pound was the norm and all was well in the catfish world, the Catfish Bargaining Association (CBA) went on hiatus. Now, with prices typically hovering between 55 cents and 58 cents per pound, the Belzoni-based cooperative is back and making noise.

Six months ago, growers met and decided the CBA needed a re-launch, says Bubba Buehler, new director of the organization. Before that could happen, organizers agreed that CBA member farmers representing at least 100,000 acres of catfish ponds were needed to give them a much stronger bargaining position.

“If we didn't have at least 100,000 acres, we knew the processors would be able to go to non-members and buy their fish cheaper,” says Buehler.

It didn't take long to get the needed farmers and ponds. Of the CBA's current members, some 78,000 acres of ponds are pledged from Mississippi, 25,000 acres from Arkansas and a few thousand more from Louisiana and Alabama. With that acreage, CBA can claim to represent over half the catfish production in the four states.

“When we got the 100,000 acres pledged around mid-May, we then asked processors to go from a 58-cent floor price to a 62-cent per-pound price,” says Buehler.

Several plants have gone along with the CBA's request “wholeheartedly” and are paying 62 cents across the board. Other processors have opted to pay stockholders 62 cents while still buying cheaper fish (55 cents to 58 cents per pound) from non-stockholders.

Processors were mostly receptive to the CBA's request, says Buehler. But it isn't enough. While in the short-term, farmers are certainly better off with the 4-cent price bump, for the last year they've been forced to sell their fish for 5 cents or more below production costs.

“Are we happy some processors are working with producers and paying 62 cents? We certainly are,” says Buehler. “But it still isn't the answer to all the problems aquaculture is having. At 62 cents, farmers still aren't making even money. One reason CBA has had such a good response is farmers are desperate. That's the sad truth. It doesn't matter the age or size of the operation, no one is making money.”

Currently, the CBA isn't picking up members at the rate it was prior to reaching the 100,000-acre mark. But Buehler says he's still receiving a lot of interest, and “I'm out traveling, visiting farmers and answering questions. We'll have even more acres backing us up before we're done.”

Would more leverage mean another price-hike demand by the CBA?

“True enough, if farmers are going to stay in business they're going to have to get more money for their fish. As to when that price will go up, I couldn't begin to guess. I do hope it happens within a year, though. If we can't get an increase within that time frame, there are a lot of farmers who won't be in business much longer.”

Besides prices, Buehler says the CBA is also focused on making sure any deductions are handled properly. Deductions are commonly made to a producer's crop for things like dead or deformed fish that arrive at a processing plant. A few years ago, the CBA helped push legislation through the Mississippi legislature on how deductions are to be handled.

“There's a procedure processing plants are supposed to follow when they dock a farmer's check. We want to make sure the farmer is getting a fair shake and that the deducts are being calculated properly.”

The main thing, though, is to get catfish prices back up, says Buehler. When that happens, it's easier for a processor to justify paying more and raising prices further along the marketplace chain.

“But when some processors are paying 62 cents and others are paying 55 cents, the processor paying more won't be able to compete for too long. Hopefully, these cheaper fish will be gone in a couple of weeks. When that happens and catfish supplies get shorter, everyone will be paying the same 62-cent floor price, and we can take another step towards getting the situation fixed.”

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