By Marlee Moore
Oil crackles as Ashley Kyser drops freshly dredged U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish in a fryer basket.
“When it starts to float and looks golden brown, it’s ready,” said Kyser, a Hale County farmer.
Fellow producers chose Kyser, 40, as Alabama’s Catfish Farmer of the Year in early 2021. He’s also the Alabama Farmers Federation State Catfish Committee chairman.
“I feel privileged to be included in this group,” Kyser said of the annual award for top catfish producer. “A lot of great farmers came before me.”
Kyser grew up learning the ropes from his father, Bill, and with his brother, Townsend. The family has raised high-quality catfish for over 50 years.
“I always wanted to come back to the farm,” said Kyser, who studied diesel mechanics. “I knew it would be a tough living, but I like to use my hands.”
Catfish farming banks on a fine balance of technology and hands-on help. Metal paddlewheels create a current in the ponds, where catfish swim in oxygenated water. Buoys read pond oxygen levels, and when levels are low, aerators kick into action. Workers monitor ponds nightly to ensure oxygen is abundant and paddlewheels are turning.
The Kysers build their own paddlewheels, which are easier to fix. Repairs are inevitable on a farm growing 5 million pounds of catfish annually.
Kyser’s wife, Scarlett, was familiar with catfish farming when they married 15 years ago. The Greensboro native grew up in the Catfish Capital of Alabama, just miles from the Kyser farm. Her father worked in the catfish industry, a common theme in the Black Belt Region, where ponds dot the fertile countryside.
Fish peppers menus, too, in Catfish Country. That’s especially true on Fridays when plates piled with fried mild, flaky fish are a common sight, even at the nursing home where Scarlett works.
“It’s one of the most popular meals,” she said. “It’s good that our residents are getting healthy, fresh fish in their diets.”
The Kysers enjoy cultivating the freedom and joys of farm life for their children, Mary Elizabeth, 12; Taylor, 11; and Martha, 9. The family attends First United Methodist Church of Greensboro, just down the road from their farm.
“I like that our kids are growing up on the farm,” Scarlett said. “They’re exposed to a lot that is good.”
The family sticks close to the ponds during busy summer months. High temperatures lower oxygen levels, so all hands are on deck for monitoring. Dry weather allows for draining, cleaning and rebuilding ponds — essential to ensuring quality, consistent, even-flavored U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish.
“Our fish are grown better,” Kyser said. “The feed, the quality of the fish, the water quality, it’s all better than fish from overseas. If you put in good ingredients, you’ll get a good product.”
When temperatures cool and cheering fans fill the football stadium at Southern Academy in Greensboro, Kyser and a group of fellow farmers are still in catfish mode, fulfilling a local tradition — fried catfish at the concessions stand.
Their secret to success is a trick catfish farmers have known for years: dry the fillet before dredging. Golden, crispy, moist fish is a near-guarantee.
“Everyone says it, but it’s true; I love raising something other people enjoy,” Kyser said. “It’s the best catfish they can get.”