June 2006
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Catfish Industry Pioneers Recognized in New Book

  Karni Perez holds a copy of "Fishing For Gold: The Story Of Alabama’s Catfish Industry."
by Alvin Benn

Recognition doesn’t always come to those who deserve it, but it’s finally happening to two Alabamians who practically invented America’s commercial catfish industry.

Thanks to an Auburn author whose dogged research led to a book on the origin of catfish production in Alabama, C. O. Stephens and Richard True are enjoying their place in the sun almost half a century after they started.

"This important part of Alabama history could have died without her," said Stephens, as he cut into a catfish fillet during lunch at the Magnolia Restaurant in the Hale County community.

Stephens, known to everybody as "Check," sat a few feet from Karni Perez, a transplanted Californian whose knowledge of catfish wouldn’t have filled a shrimp fork when she arrived with her family 18 years ago.

Perez is experiencing a bit of fame herself these days as she attends events to promote "Fishing for Gold: The Story of Alabama’s Catfish Industry."

The 263-page book, published by the University of Alabama Press, details pioneering efforts by Stephens and True to turn an experiment into a successful venture.

Perez joined Stephens and True a few weeks ago at the Hale County Library where friends packed the auditorium to hear them discuss their contributions to what has become a multi-million dollar annual industry.

"Without catfish, this would be a pretty desolate place econom-ically," said True in brief remarks to those who listened attentively. His comments reflected a large dose of reality because Hale County is in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt region that is the most economically depressed part of the state.

Author Karni Perez is flanked by Richard True, left, and Check Stephens in Greensboro where they autographed copies of her book: "Fishing for Gold: The Story of Alabama’s Catfish Industry." Perez is holding a stuffed toy catfish.  
Because of the catfish industry and the thousands of jobs it has created since the early 1960s, many people don’t have to rely on welfare to survive.

Stephens, 84, best known statewide for his Christmas tree farm in Autauga County, and True, 77, a former cattleman who "babysat" the first batch of catfish, admit they are thoroughly enjoying their extended "15 minutes of fame."

What they did in 1960 for catfish mirrored the success of Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903 when the Ohio brothers proved heavier than air vehicles could fly with the proper propulsion.

Stephens and True may not have come up with a Wright-like, earth-shaking discovery, but they did prove that catfish didn’t have to be hooked in rivers to be enjoyed. They proved that catfish could be cultivated in ponds, processed and then sold to hungry customers around the world.

Comparing a fish with aircraft may seem a bit of a stretch, but, for those who rely on catfish for their livelihoods on a daily basis, it’s every bit as important. Those who make their living from catfish have Stephens and True to thank because the partners refused to give up when bankers would not grant them loans and friends snickered when they learned what they were trying to do.

  Author Karni Perez, right, and Randell Goodman, superintendent of Auburn University’s Fisheries Research Unit, hold a catfish taken from a catch pen at the facility.
Skilled in oral research, Perez spent months interviewing the catfish pioneers who would share their expertise with farmers in neighboring Mississippi that leads the nation in catfish production.

When Perez began her research in 1997, she thought she would be able to finish the project in a year or so. She quickly realized that would not be the case. She knew she had undertaken a major assignment.

"I had already interviewed pulp and paper workers around Alabama as well as Holocaust survivors, so I was familiar with oral research," she said. "What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of time I’d be spending on the book."

Her trips would take her from her home in Auburn into the Black Belt counties of Hale, Greene and Perry counties where she got to know farmers who were willing to try something new. They had spent their lives raising cotton, cattle and trees. They considered catfish something to catch in rivers by individual fishermen. It hadn’t really occurred to them that they could raise catfish commercially in ponds.

Left to right, Joe Glover Sr. (head missing from picture), Richard True, unknown laborer, and C. O. "Check" Stephens (in the back) as they pulled fish in with a seine during the very first STRAL harvest at Joe Glover’s one-acre pond on November 14, 1961.  
By the time Perez began interviewing Stephens, True and others in the fledgling catfish industry, she had a good idea that she was into something pretty special. "I spent hours with a tape recorder in front of them and then had their thoughts transcribed for me," she recalled. "There wasn’t much research for me to do other than interviewing people because nothing had really been written about the catfish industry before."

She also knew that in order for a book to attract attention, it had to be interesting and not just a boring chronology of events. That’s why she added some pizzazz to her project. On her way back home after her interviews with Stephens and True, Perez listened to the taped questions and answers and began to think about how she would write her book.

This is how one of her chapters begins:

"The raindrops and wipers beat their steady rhythms on the car windows as Chester O. "Check" Stephens drove into the Gulf station in Greensboro, Alabama that fall morning in 1960."

 Her goal was to produce a "non-academic" book that the general public might enjoy. She also knew that Stephens would be the key to her efforts. "Check was the real storyteller," she remembered. "I used what he and the others provided me and enhanced it a bit. I wanted to create that scene of rain splashing on Check’s windshield to capture the reader’s attention."

  Left to right, Joe Glover Sr., an unknown laborer, Richard True, another unknown laborer, and Check Stephens standing by a boat full of catfish they had collected by hand during the first STRAL harvest in November, 1966. The debris on the bottom of the pond (stumps, trunks, and branches) made seining extremely difficult.
Perez, who began her research at the request of Conner Bailey, an Auburn University professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, grew up in California where catfish were as foreign as Alabama accents.

"A constant theme in my life has been an abiding interest in natural resources, in particular how people and societies in general relate to their natural surroundings and how they are affected by them," she said.

She and her husband, who works at Auburn University, and two sons moved from California in 1988. She worked as a legal secretary and teacher and had no experience in aquaculture. That’s why she relied on those who had the experience and were happy to help her with her research.

One was Randell Goodman, superintendent of the AU Research Station/Fisheries department. He has been working with catfish for years and is familiar with development of what has become quite a cash crop for west Alabama farmers.

Stephens’ decision to invest heavily in catfish in the early 1960s remains fresh in Goodman’s mind and he hasn’t forgotten those days."Check was a major player," said Goodman. "He had the foresight that was needed at the start and he had the guts to try and make it happen. A lot of people have foresight and guts, but they never act on them."

Goodman said water quality and accessibility are the main reasons catfish farming developed and thrived in the Black Belt.

After years of prosperity, Alabama’s catfish farmers are faced with problems similar to the ailing textile industry—foreign competition where labor is cheap and the bottom line often is supported by government handouts, including many in Asia.

"Our catfish growers are getting out of the industry due to foreign competition and subsidies," Goodman said. "Their profit margin is very small, so they have to be extraordinarily good managers. They’ve got to keep their production levels high."

Alabama’s catfish industry has made enormous strides in the past 46 years—moving from a tiny operation in a few ponds to a multi-million dollar pot of gold for processors. Perhaps the best thing to come out of the industry has been the economic boost for the Black Belt that has been described as something akin to Third World countries.

Many jobs are being provided for residents of the region, most at processing plants built to handle the harvested catfish crop. Only Mississippi has a bigger catfish clout and as America’s appetite increases for what use to be considered a bottom-feeding southern delicacy, the future looks even brighter.

Alabama has about 230 commercial catfish farmers who utilize more than 25,000 acres of water to grow their crop. Most of the farms are located in the Black Belt counties of Greene, Hale, Dallas, Perry, Sumter and Marengo.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, more than 142 million pounds of catfish were produced in Alabama last year (2005) with the overall economic impact of the industry in the state estimated at more than $450 million.

More than 3,000 Alabamians credit catfish with providing their main source of income and catfish farmers received an estimated $100 million for their product in 2005.

Although the history of catfish farming in Alabama dates back to the early 1960s, the real emphasis on the watery crop didn’t arrive until the mid-1970s. Since that time, it’s been full speed ahead as more farmers ditch what they had been doing to build catfish ponds or expand their existing operations. According to the Alabama Catfish Producers, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, catfish production has increased an amazing 160 percent in the past two decades.

Stephens and True sold their catfish interests years ago, but have kept an eye on how the industry has been doing since those first painful steps in 1960 when they decided to go into business together. "We just happened to be in the right place at the right time," said Stephens.

That might have been the case, but their decision to risk all that they had to try something new has been reaping rewards for thousands of Alabamians since that time. Perez’ book is a way for them to get the recognition they so richly deserve.

To order the book, phone 773-702-7000.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.