When Alabama Catfish Farmer of the Year Sage Spree looks across the acres of water on his farm, he’s mindful that the fish growing in those ponds eventually wind up on someone’s plate. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously, not just for future customers, but his own family.
“A lot of times people don’t understand the lengths we go to make sure our water quality is good and that our fish are healthy and well fed,” said the 39-year-old from Boligee. “I want people to know that me and my family, including my 18-month-old little girl, Saylor, eat these fish. I know these catfish are safe and wholesome, or I wouldn’t feed them to my family.”
Spree’s dedication to the catfish industry earned him the title of Alabama Catfish Farmer of the Year in February from his fellow farmers in the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Catfish Division. Last month, he joined the top catfish farmers from Mississippi and Arkansas at the Boston Seafood Expo where they served as ambassadors for their industry. While there, they met with shoppers from around the world and cooked catfish samples for potential buyers for national and international markets.
Spree, who is married to Anne Kimball Spree, said he often gets funny looks when strangers learn he’s a catfish farmer. Sometimes, he said, they think there’s not much to it – just catching the fish.
“But there’s a lot of sleepless nights spent watching over the ponds, especially in the summer when the oxygen in the water can get low and possibly endanger the fish,” Spree said. “We have several aerators running in each pond when the nights are still and there’s no air circulating. It’s especially hectic if a storm knocks out the power — that’s when things get a little crazy. It’s all hands on deck to get the aerators going and keep the fish alive.”
Catfish farmers like Spree play an important role in the state’s economy, said Federation Catfish Division Director Rick Oates.
“Agriculture and forestry contribute $70.4 billion to Alabama’s economy each year,” Oates said. “That’s more than any other industry. Catfish farming contributes $158.2 million annually to our state. In Greene County alone, it pumps $21.6 million into the local economy each year.”
Spree’s ancestors were some of the first settlers in Greene County in the 1800s. He farms with his dad, Thed Spree, who was among the first catfish farmers in the area. Together, they raise cattle and timber, but the bread and butter for the farm is catfish.
“Catfish farming has been good to our family,” Spree said. There are a lot of challenges in farming, and catfish farming is no different. One of our biggest challenges is foreign competition that gets passed off as U.S. farm-raised catfish when really it’s an imported fish from overseas. Those fish aren’t raised in the clean, safe manner our fish are raised, and it’s important consumers know that.”
While he doesn’t till the soil and plant a seed for his harvest, those millions of tiny catfish fingerlings Spree places in his ponds each year are the crop he’ll harvest months later. Like most farmers, he wears lots of hats, doing whatever needs to be done. That’s what he likes most about his job, he said. Riding and watching the ponds that cover nearly 450 acres on the Sprees’ spread is just one part of his ever-changing routine.
“Every day is different,” Spree said. “Some days I’m a mechanic, welder, truck driver, electrician or an engineer. It takes all of those to be a good farmer, I think.”