Raised in a pond only replenished by nature, all-natural catfish from Carolina Classics target consumers who are concerned about where and how their food is grown.

Rob Mayo, president of Carolina Classics Catfish, even flavor-tests each pond of catfish before harvest. He founded the company in 1986 near Ayden, home to an ideal growing season, with clay soil and flat land for catfish production. Today, his company’s white-meat fish raised in rain-recharged ponds sell primarily to fine retailers and white-linen restaurants like Harris Teeter, Chef & the Farmer, and Husk Restaurant.

“Originally, the premium end of the industry was all about the best-tasting fish and getting to market quicker,” Mayo says, “but over time that quality has also come to mean environmentally friendly and healthy in ways that people didn’t conceive of when we started in the late 1980s.”

Rob Mayo is the founder and president of Carolina Classic Catfish in Ayden, North Carolina. Photo credit: Kate Medley

See more: North Carolina’s Broad Aquaculture Industry

Environmentally Friendly Catfish Farming

Catfish dominate aquaculture production in Eastern North Carolina, where Carolina Classics Catfish operates a feed mill, processing facility and channel catfish farms across 1,200 acres of ponds. As the state’s largest catfish producer, the business annually harvests around 5 million live pounds of catfish, processed mostly into fillets and nuggets and sold primarily fresh to retailers and restaurants from Chicago eastward and Georgia northward into Canada. The company also taps a consistent nationwide market as the exclusive catfish supplier for Whole Foods Market.

Despite a market saturated with imported seafood, the company has distinguished itself among a niche base of customers.

“We sell our fish to people who want a higher value, consistently good-tasting fish that has a clear traceability in terms of where it’s come from, what it’s been fed and how it’s been raised,” Mayo says.

North Carolina catfish contribute more than $12 million per year to the aquaculture industry

Photo credit: istock.com/commablack

Customers like knowing catfish farms like Carolina Classics lead water conservation efforts, adopting farm practices that make both environmental and economic sense. For example, Gary Dillon, the company’s farm manager, has discovered that pond water levels can measure less than full with successful results. He adjusts overflow pipes to capture excess water in the fall and winter to help carry through summer. Economically, this eliminates $5,000 to $10,000 per month in operating costs of a well. Environmentally, this means fish swim in only clean rainwater.

“What we’ve done here in North Carolina is worked more into what nature gives us,” says Dillon, also vice president of the North Carolina Aquaculture Association. “We are good stewards of the environment, and if people came out to our facilities, they could see that, as well as the diversity of wildlife on our farms that we coexist with. The predatory birds are here because of us, including the bald eagles we have on all of our farms.”

See more: Farm Facts: Catfish

See Also:  North Carolina's Top 10 Ag Commodities

Catfish Farms Contribute to Economy

In all, North Carolina’s catfish production and processing contribute more than $12 million per year to an aquaculture industry consistently valued in excess of $50 million annually, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDACS).

Pete Anderson, aquaculture consultant with NCDACS, says the catfish industry deserves recognition for its low environmental impact to efficiently produce a healthy protein choice, right here in North Carolina.

“When we look at trying to feed a growing population, aquaculture, in general, can produce more pounds of protein per acre than any other species,” Anderson says. “If you can take that and add to it what Carolina Classics is doing – they are good stewards of the environment. They care deeply about what they’re doing and the impact they may have. Operations like this are what’s needed in the future to sustain and feed the growing population.”

North Carolina catfish pack a lot of protein

Photo credit: istock.com/stock_colors

See more: Catfish Cakes with Citrus Herb Butter

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