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Flashback: The Global Pond

Photo courtesy of the Alabama Farmers Federation

Photo courtesy of the Alabama Farmers Federation

In our first issue of Business Alabama, January 1986, we introduced you to two of the pioneers of aquaculture in Alabama — catfish farmer Thed Spree and Joe Glover, founder of Farm Fresh Catfish Inc., in Greensboro, one of the industry’s largest processors.

When we visited Spree’s Farm outside of Boligee, his crew was busy hoisting 600 pound-net loads of live catfish into a waiting tank truck. He was one of the largest producers in the state, operating since the 1970s, with a staff that included an Auburn Ph.D. in aquaculture.

Auburn has been helping farmers grow fish in ponds since the 1930s. Spree needed one of Auburn’s Ph.D.s in 1986 because catfish was now big business and the risks had also grown big — conditions, such as oxygen levels, that become critical within hours. 

“You’ve got to be ready,” said Spree. “There’s no tomorrow in the fish industry. It’s all right here, right today.”

Pioneering processor Glover said, “In the beginning, it was like stepping into the dark. We didn’t know a lot about what we were doing, and we had no year-round markets.”

Glover ran a meat and grocery business in Greensboro in the 1960s, when he became interested in raising catfish to sell in his store. He sold his first processing plant to ConAgra in 1968, started a second one and sold it to Hormel in 1983.

Catfish, like other farming, is an up and down business. Cost of feed is one of the two biggest factors. The other is supply. Once it was a bubble of U.S. enthusiasts that drove supply high and prices low. Now, the competition is from overseas. Imported catfish is priced about 25 percent below U.S. catfish.

It’s now a global pond, as illustrated by this month’s Risk Taker, May Myat Noe Lwin (page 52). The 36-year-old Burmese woman, who runs three commercial crab farms in Thailand, will soon become one of the freshest Ph.D.s out of Auburn’s aquaculture think tank.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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