I recently sat down with Randy Rhodes, the president of Harvest Select Catfish an Steel City Seafood, for a brief chat. It is no small feat to pin Randy down. He spends his weeks running between the farms and plant in Uniontown, AL and the corporate offices in Northport, when he isn’t on the road doing business all over the country. Randy grew up in Alabama surrounded by catfish farms which fostered a love of the business, and the tender, flaky goodness of catfish.
In 1983 Randy went to work for a relative who owned a catfish company. Says Randy, “He saw something in me, and made it his mission to mentor me and encourage me to continue towards a career in the fish industry.”
Randy served as a military tank company commander and has worked for several catfish processors to include Southern Pride Catfish, before landing at Harvest Select, which was started in 1991 by five local farmers and is now owned by a private group that includes catfish farmers. The company and it’s stockholders farm over 4500 acres of U.S. Farm-raised Channel Catfish from the Mississippi Delta to west and central Alabama. This is the species of choice because of its immense popularity in the Southeast and Alabama, which is the countries leader in catfish farming, as well as the firmness of the fish, the mild flavor and flaky texture. Chefs love it because it can be prepared in a wide variety of ways. Broiled, grilled, fried…whatever the menu calls for.
Channel catfish is natural to the waterways of the South. However, our fish are raised in a very controlled and contained environment. We maintain levees so that the flood plain is not an issue and water is not released from ponds. We are diligent to maintain a very healthy eco-system.”
When asked to discuss the company Randy is definitely not at a loss for words. His passion for Harvest Select is evident. Says Randy. “I would say the most exciting part of my day is the constant change and challenges that are presented. I always say, it may just be one farm-raised catfish, but there is sure to be a challenge involved with it.”
“Our catfish are born in the Mississippi Delta at our hatchery, grown to food fish size at our farms in Alabama, processed by a dedicated team of plant personnel, delivered to customers by our fleet of drivers and represented/sold by our inside sales staff. We employ four of the most talented hatchery managers in the industry. They work to insure our brood fish and fingerings live and grow in the healthiest environment possible. The process is carefully monitored at every stage to insure excellent quality.
Our hatchery ponds are constantly monitored for water quality to maintain the highest health standards. We have wells that supply the purest clean water from the Mississippi Delta Aquifer. And we absolutely do not use growth hormones. We feed our catfish a mixture of soybean, wheat and corn that floats on the surface of the pond, thus training fish to come to the surface to eat. The diet is protein based and no fish meal is part of their diet. Our food fish grow in a safe, natural environment. Each pond is 10-15 acres in size and aeration and water quality maintains healthy fish for 18mos. until harvest.”
Randy went on to tell a great story from his early days in the business. “One of the most memorable moments, and sort of a funny one in retrospect, happened during my first two months on the job. I was working customer service in slacks and dress shoes when a pipe burst in one of the ponds. The water was rapidly receding and all of us were called to jump in the pond with 5lb buckets and harvest the fish by hand. I actually lost my shoes that day in the muck and mire, and my clothing went straight to the trash.”
Inspirations and Challenges
Randy says “One of the proudest moments at the farm is to witness the harvest crews on the water seining, see one of the trucks in the background feeding the fish just as another truck is delivering feed to the farm. Its all happening at once and it’s nice to see all of the moving parts. I’d say the hardest part of our job as catfish farmers is insuring that the fish are fed properly and sustaining catfish during the heat of summer. I believe the secret to running a great catfish farm is communication and having a precise understanding of the needs of the plant and the consumer. Most importantly, having willing, able and dedicated people with immense knowledge of the catfish industry. It’s a 7 month hard-charging effort with a brief chance to breathe during the slow-down of the winter months before the process begins all over.”
“Our goal for 2016 and beyond was to hire young, experienced and educated aquaculturists. Over the past year and a half we have done just that, hiring managers with the training needed to move our company forward while bringing up a new generation of farmers.
We have written our own software programs to monitor feeding and oxygen levels and we use another program that monitors and regulates fish growth based on feed amounts. The timing of harvests is based on this data. Aquaculture is the process of the future, due to the limitations of the wild. The wild fish industry does a great job with their quota system so that over-fishing does not occur. Having said that, farm-raised fish has created a huge demand and assists in feeding the population.”
Fresh, Nutritious and Environmentally-Friendly
“Our catfish are fed a highly nutritious diet, and fed on top of the water. U.S. farm-raised catfish is some of the safest, and environmentally friendly fish grown in the world.
It is delivered to customers within 2-3 days of harvest—which is unmatched in most of the farmed or wild-caught world.
U.S. farm-raised catfish is hauled live in oxygenated, aerated trucks directly from the pond, to the plant, and processed within one hour. Fish are kept alive until the moment of processing.
American-raised catfish is truly the model of sustainability in fish farming. I wish more people understood that the process of aquaculture is the way to a safe, viable and sustainable product. There is so much confusion about the use of antibiotics and hormones that is unfair to the industry. We have the number one aquaculture species in America.”
On the Horizon
We are in the experimental stages of growing Tilapia in cages on our catfish farms. We are regularly increasing volume to test the process of adding this species to our ponds.
We are preparing to launch the e-commerce portion of our website, and have just purchased Birmingham based Steel City Seafood. Our anchor will always be
U.S. farm-raised catfish, but our Alabama presence and product offering will increase to include southern gulf seafood and other species which are a natural compliment to our current products.
“We have been researching and planning for this opportunity with Steel City for years. The timing is ideal for Harvest Select. We look forward to further promoting American catfish and our Alabama gulf seafood.”
When Randy isn’t enjoying farm-raised catfish, his favorite seafood meal is Cioppino which is a classic seafood stew with a little bit of everything from the sea; shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, crabmeat seasoned with oregano, thyme and basil. “Add a glass of white wine and it doesn’t get much better. I order it every chance I get.”
In his free time, Randy and wife Julie have recently welcomed a new arrival. German Shepherd pup Willow is a frequent and welcome guest at the office and is definitely keeping Randy on his toes.