Carla Carlisle on catfish and commodity prices

Last week, we drank mint juleps sitting in the rocking chairs that some folks think look out of place in a Suffolk garden. We’re still making our way through the bourbon my father brought here his last Christmas, and we make juleps every year on the anniversary of the day Elvis Presley died.

In fact, the rocking chairs started this tradition. They were made in Tupelo, Mississippi, and shipped over here one summer when I was feeling homesick for summer evenings when we would rock and talk and watch the lightning bugs. Tupelo has never got the credit it deserves as the birthplace of Elvis. People think that, because of Graceland, he was from Memphis. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to set the record straight.

It’s also the 10th anniversary of my first visit to Graceland, followed by a drive south to Mississippi. On that trip, I went up in my friend Billy Whittington’s ancient twin-engined Cessna and flew over the Mississippi River to look at the Delta’s newest crop: catfish. We looked down on the river that, in 1927, had flooded an area the size of Scotland, now tamed by levees and surrounded by shallow pools, 10 and 20 acres in size, brimming with fish. That night, we ate fried catfish and hush puppies at Lusco’s in Greenwood and toasted to Catfish Salvation, because these whiskery creatures truly had transformed the hard-luck, dirt-poor region.

But, as the great Yogi Berra once said: ‘It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.’ Ten years later, the catfish business is a dead business. Farmers are pulling the plugs in the ponds. Corn and soybeans —the feed for the catfish—have tripled in price in the past two years, thanks to politicians jumping on the ethanol bandwagon, as well as floods in the Midwest and insatiable demand in the Asian markets. For every dollar it costs to produce a fish, the fish farmers are lucky if they get back 75 cents when it goes to market.

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And there’s another problem. Producers in Vietnam and China started raising catfish, too, and exporting their fish to the US for less money than the Delta farmers could produce them for. Perhaps the farmers should’ve seen this coming: it’s exactly what had happened with cotton 40 years earlier.

As Mr Berra put it: ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’ But no one predicted that the US government’s ethanol mandates for making fuel would compete with food for the harvest of the nation’s farmland. The catfish farmers say they’re just the first to go because feed is more than half the cost of raising the fish, compared to
a third of the cost of rearing beef and pork.

Here in Suffolk, with Elvis singing Gospel music in the background and mellowed by mint juleps, you might think we’d be counting our blessings to be in wheat and barley instead of catfish. But the world is a small place. Two of the pork stalls in our farmer’s market have got out of pigs in the last six months because it costs more to feed their pigs than they can sell them for. In the vineyard restaurant, many of our basic food costs have tripled and we’re nervous about passing these costs on to the customer. Meanwhile, more than a dozen of our local suppliers say they’re struggling to stay in business.

In the Delta, catfish replaced cotton, but nobody knows what will replace catfish. I feel pretty sure it will be soybeans and corn, the two crops the world can’t get enough of. But the simple truth is that we all need for commodity prices to come down, the sooner the better. Can we really run our cars on the same fuel that feeds the world? Elvis is singing Bridge Over Troubled Water, a song I love. But Mr Berra keeps popping into my mind. The sage of baseball also said: ‘The future ain’t what it used to be.’ I’ll drink to that.