A choice made over three decades ago by Wallace “Bubba” Drury Jr. transformed his Hale County farm into a spread dotted with sparkling ponds and green pastures. Low commodity prices led the former row-crop farmer to venture into a relatively new enterprise — farm-raised catfish.
That decision recently netted Drury the title of Alabama Catfish Farmer Of The Year. He received the award from fellow catfish farmers across the state who recognized him at the Alabama Catfish Producers meeting in February.
“I was honored to receive the award,” said Drury, who, as the winner, represented Alabama at the prestigious Seafood Expo North America in Boston last month. He joined catfish farmers of the year from Arkansas and Mississippi at the expo and served U.S. farm-raised catfish to food buyers from around the world.
“It was a great opportunity for buyers to meet farmers who raise the catfish they’re buying,” he said.
Drury, 59, grew up on a family farm in Greensboro, about 35 miles south of Tuscaloosa. His grandfather was a dairyman, so he learned the value of hard work at an early age. When Drury began farming full time on his own in the late 1970s, he said market changes forced him to rethink his plans to be a row-crop farmer.
“I leased a place in the late ‘70s that had a seven-acre pond,” he said. “I put some catfish in it, and it made a little money. I started adding and building ponds as I could, and by 1994 it was up to nearly 300 acres of water. As water acres increased, we moved away from row crops.”
Drury recently added another 50 acres when he bought a nearby farm. He shares 300 more acres of water with his brother, Charlie. In all, the brothers manage 650 acres of water that produce 5-6 million pounds of catfish annually.
Monitoring water quality and oxygen levels, not to mention equipment maintenance and repairs, keeps them busy. Just feeding so many fish is almost a full-time job.
“I do all the feeding on my farm,” Drury said. “I like doing that. It gives me a chance to see what things look like and how the fish respond.”
Trucks spread floating feed onto the ponds creating a swirling display of fins and tails as fish eat a pelleted diet of soybean meal, corn and wheat. That specialized diet and attention to water quality sets U.S. farm-raised fish above foreign imports, Drury said.
The biggest challenge U.S. catfish farmers face came, in part, from their own success. After marketing efforts by American farmers boosted demand for catfish, foreign imports flooded the U.S.
Domestic production still hasn’t recovered, Drury said.
“A decade ago, U.S. farmers raised nearly 700 million pounds of catfish, and we had about 85-90 percent of the domestic market,” he said. “Today, we only have about 16 percent of the market, growing about 350 million pounds of fish annually. Foreign imports are cheaper, but they aren’t grown in the clean, safe environment where we raise our fish. I think if more people knew how foreign fish are grown, they’d demand U.S. farm-raised catfish.”
A new U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection rule began in March and could help level the financial playing field for American catfish farmers. It requires more testing of imported fish, which in some cases, is treated with chemicals banned in the U.S.
In addition to catfish, Drury also raises Brangus beef cattle. He said the switch from row crops to catfish and cattle allowed him to continue to do what he loves.
“I couldn’t have made it row crop farming — the money just wasn’t there,” he said. “Catfish allowed us to continue to farm and to grow.”
Alabama Farmers Federation’s Rick Oates said honoring farmers like Drury rewards their hard work and highlights the care they take in producing a quality product.
“When consumers enjoy U.S. farm-raised catfish, we want them to know farmers like Bubba take seriously the responsibility of growing a delicious, safe and healthy product,” said Oates, the Federation’s Catfish Division director.
Drury and his wife of 33 years, Anne, have a daughter, Leah, and a son, Wallace Drury III, who is an area organization director for the Federation. Wallace and wife Sarah Beth are parents to the Drury’s only grandchild, Kennedy Anne, who is 4-months old.