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UF Experts Help Escambia Farmers Diversify Into Aquaculture

Chuck Woods (352) 392-1773 x 281

Max Griggs (850) 475-5230
Ruth Francis-Floyd (352) 392-9617, ext. 229
Andy Lazur (850) 674-3184
Tom Simard (850) 327-6240

PENSACOLA—Already a booming industry in the Mississippi River Delta, aquaculture is making a big splash in Escambia County, where farm-raised catfish production has more than tripled in the last two years.

“In just five years, the industry in our county has gone from a couple of small start-ups to 35 producers on more than 600 acres of ponds, and there’s no end in sight,” said Max Griggs, a University of Florida aquaculture extension agent in Escambia County who helped those farmers get into the business. He expects production will top 700 acres by the end of the year.

“Almost all catfish production in the state is now based here in Escambia County,” he said. “Our annual production averages about 4,000 pounds of fish per acre, which means we’re talking about 2 million pounds of channel catfish with a market value of $1.5 million.”

Production of fingerlings, or newly hatched channel catfish, has grown by more than 3,000 percent in the last five years, he said. “Channel catfish” refers to a particular species of farm-raised catfish preferred by consumers.

Griggs says expansion of the industry is driven by nationwide market demand. Increasing acceptance of channel catfish as a food fish, coupled with diminishing wild fish stocks worldwide, has kept prices for farm-raised catfish strong, he said.

To keep up with demand, he said the UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is expanding its extension education program to help more farmers get into various aspects of the catfish business.

“The ability and willingness of Escambia County farmers to seize upon this opportunity has many facets,” he said. “Suitable land for levee-type pond construction, availability of bulk feed and supplies, and improving access to markets are essential, but knowing how to compete successfully in this industry is equally important.”

Griggs said Escambia farmers are similar to those who started the catfish industry in the Mississippi River Delta. Both groups are agronomic farmers who have the land and equipment needed for the new enterprise.

“Some people are using computers to design ponds while others have purchased earth-moving equipment needed to construct ponds,” Griggs said. “We also have people who are specializing in fingerling production, bulk feeding and harvesting — everyone is racing to keep up with demand.”

Tom Simard, president of the West Florida Regional Fish Growers’ Cooperative Inc. in Walnut Hill, north of Pensacola, has developed remote sensing equipment that allows producers to monitor oxygen levels in ponds from the convenience of their home computers. When oxygen levels reach unhealthy levels, computers turn on equipment to aerate the water.

He said Griggs has been a “driving force” in building the aquaculture industry in Escambia County. “He gets an A-plus for all he has done,” Simard said. “Everyone here appreciates his work in providing assistance for all aspects of the business, ranging from technical expertise to market research.

“Besides helping producers with individual problems, he has provided community leadership for the new industry,” Simard said. “His work includes everything from developing guides on regulatory requirements to workshops on pond construction and water quality, fish health management, harvesting and promotion.”

Working with Griggs are Ruth Francis-Floyd, associate professor in UF’s department of fisheries and aquatic sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine, and Andy Lazur, associate professor in the department and director of the UF’s Mitchell Aquaculture Demonstration Farm in Blountstown.

Francis-Floyd, the nation’s first extension veterinarian for aquaculture, works with Griggs and Escambia County fish farmers to develop modern fish health management practices and pond management strategies. She travels from the UF to Escambia County to conduct workshops with Griggs, teaching farmers technical information as well as skills for successful farm management.

Lazur and farm biologist Debbie Pouder, also based at the Mitchell Demonstration Farm, provide technical support to Griggs and the Escambia County aquaculture industry with information on fish nutrition, water quality management, economics, marketing, regulations and fish hauling and processing.

“Hands-on water quality and production systems management workshops are a regular part of this support,” Luzar said. “Other projects include tours of the demonstration farm in Blountstown for new or prospective farmers, on-site farm visits within Escambia County and individual farmer assistance discussions.”