July 2013
Farm & Field

Derry Bone Knows Catfish

 
  Derry Bone holds up a plaque awarded to him as Alabama’s Catfish Farmer of the year.

When Derry Bone shifted from cattle to catfish 18 years ago, he knew the transition wouldn’t be easy, but he never thought he’d begin by digging ditches.

That’s just what happened and, as he toiled under a hot April sun to help lay water lines for an irrigation system, he wondered if he had made the right decision.

"I dug most of those ditches by hand and I didn’t know what I was in for," he said, breaking into a big smile. "Then David told me things would get better."

As it turned out, Bone not only learned something new, he also created a national reputation through hard work and dedication to a vastly different form of farming.

It all paid off a few months ago when he was named Alabama’s Catfish Farmer of the Year – a recognition bestowed on him in Little Rock, Ark., where he and two other state winners were honored. Bone was nominated for this honor by the Alabama Catfish Producers, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation.

 
Derry Bone inspects one of his catfish pond aerators in the Browns community of Dallas County.  

"Derry is far and away the best manager in the industry," said David Pearce, whose promise to Bone all those years ago certainly has paid off. "He’s really good at what he does."

Pearce, former director of one of Alabama’s leading catfish farms, has watched Bone mature in his new surroundings after somewhat of a shaky start with that ditch-digging assignment.

Bone didn’t know it at the time, but it was part of a test by Pearce to see if he could handle a job requiring considerable effort.

That ditch-digging assignment, by the way, was to help Pearce’s wife Fran with her flower-growing projects at the farm and she couldn’t have been happier with the way the ditches took shape.

"David could see the discouragement in my face, but said things would get better and it sure has," said Bone, 44. "The hours are long, but it’s all part of a job that has become an important part of my life."

 
  Derry Bone, right, chats with catfish collector Randy Hobson at the Pearce Catfish Farm in the Browns community of Dallas County.

Long hours are enough to make most people look for other lines of work because catfish farming requires only the most committed individuals.

It’s not unusual for Bone to put in 16-18 hour days to make sure the fish are properly cared for and harvested.

He didn’t become general manager overnight. It took awhile as Pearce watched him learn the ropes and move from one responsibility to another.

"David felt I needed to know how to do everything," said Bone, who grew up on a cattle farm nearby in Marion Junction. "He also told me, ‘You take care of me and I’ll take care of you.’"

Buying and selling cattle was all Bone knew as he grew up, but his family business eventually played out and he began looking for something else to do.

"You could just call it a good string of bad luck and I decided to give it up and move on," he said. "This job came along at the right time."

It couldn’t have worked out any better, either. Bone and his wife Annabelle and their two sons moved to the little west Dallas County community of Browns several years ago and built a house on 10 acres of land they bought from his mentor.

"David has always been more like a father to me than a boss," said Bone. "As I got to know my job better, he kept giving me raises. I couldn’t have asked for more."

As the manager of 16 employees, Bone often works from dawn to dusk making sure the farm bearing the Pearce name is managed to the best of his abilities. There’s no doubt in Pearce’s mind that it is.

It’s a huge responsibility because the farm includes 121 ponds containing 1,387 watery acres located over a four-mile area – up from the 500 acres when Bone started.

According to an economic impact study, Alabama’s 200 catfish farmers raise fish in just over 19,000 acres of ponds. The result is an industry providing more than $150 million to the state’s economy along with about 6,000 jobs.

"We try to raise about 10,000 pounds of fish an acre and harvest year-round and work 50 weeks out of the year and that includes weekends," Bone remarked.

Harvesting requires special skills for the crew because they wind up in waist-deep water beginning long after the sun sets. By the time they are finished, it might be approaching midnight.

At times, freezing temperatures leave thick coats of ice covering catfish ponds, only adding to the demanding job already required.

"I remember the time we had to go out into the ponds and jump up and down to crack the ice," said Randy Hobson, whose company helps to harvest catfish at Pearce Catfish Farm.

Hobson admires Bone’s dedication to his job because he sees it every night the harvesting begins.

"I get days off and get to go home late at night, but he’s still here when I leave," said Hobson. "He works hard. No doubt about that."

Catfish farming has had a unique history, dating back half a century in Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas before moving into the Mississippi Delta region where that state became the major provider of the fish. Alabama is a close second.

Bone said the United States once produced about 700 million pounds of catfish annually, but it has dropped to about 300 million in recent years.

Catfish competition from Vietnam and China has become a major problem for U.S. producers who feel they aren’t operating on an even playing field.

Imported catfish, in Bone’s opinion, fall far below the quality of fish grown domestically.

"Foreign catfish filet, for instances, is thinner than ours," he said, adding that federal inspections fall far below where they should be "and we’ve been lobbying for years to tighten up restrictions."

He said "Country of Origin" laws require labels to identify where the fish were raised, but it’s become pretty much of a guessing game as far as some restaurants are concerned.

"You can ask a waitress about that and you’re likely to get an ‘I don’t know’ answer," Bone explained. "It’s become a big problem for us, but all we can do is push for changes."

He has no doubts, of course, that U.S.-grown catfish more than pass the taste test with consumers and is confident operations in Mississippi, Alabama and other producing states will survive the latest challenges.

"We have our own little niche market including mom and pop fish houses and other buyers," Bone said. "People in the South demand American catfish and we’re doing our best to provide it for them."

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.