26-Fish Farming News-Nov/Dec-2005
A visit with Texas Aquaculture Pioneer Howard Bowers
Harold Bowers is one of the true pioneers of the Texas fish farming industry. Best known as the president of Bowers Shrimp, Bowers started out farming rice. A genuine Texan, he has also raised cattle. With experience growing redfish and hybrid striped bass in his South Texas ponds, Bowers in now moving aggressively into catfish farming.
Reed Bowers, the second generation of the family engaged in the fish farming business, is convinced that the growth of a market or organic seafood will help domestic farmers. "I think the organic market's gonna grow, but you can do it cheaper somewhere else." The IQF head-on shrimp is marked "Product of the USA" but Harold Bowers also raises shrimp on a farm in Belize, where it is much less expensive to operate. He sees raising catfish as one way to continue to farm in Texas in the face of foreign competition.
by Stephen Rappaport
PALACIOS, TX-Writing for Fish Farming News is a lot of fun, and the best part of the job is getting to visit with fish farmers all over the country and listen to them talk about their farms, the aquaculture business, and themselves. On a quick trip to South Texas, in December 2005, I got to meet a genuine pioneer, Harold Bowers. With his son, Reed, he owns Bowers Shrimp. The company is best known for the P. vannemai that is raised in ponds- nearly 400 water acres that it owns in Collegeport, TX, on Lavaca Bay. In addition to those ponds, the company has built another 250 acres of ponds in Belize, and leases about another 200 acres of ponds for shrimp production in Rio Hondo, near the Mexican border.
Bowers is widely considered to be one of the leading shrimp farmers in the U.S., but that description is overly simplistic.
"I've been a rice farmer all my life," Bowers said during a relax chat in the office he shares with his son at the Bowers Shrimp processing plant in Palacios. "I've farmed Milo, cotton, soybeans, and raised cattle." Now he's turning to a new crop: catfish.
About three years ago, the Bowers family bought a fish farm in Danevang, about a half-hour northeast of Palacios. When they bought the farm, it had about 80 water acres of ponds that were stocked with catfish. It didn't take long for the Bowers' to start expanding the operation. This year, the Bowers' added 300 water acres to the farm, which now has about 450 water acres devoted to catfish. Of that, 150 acres are devoted to grow out operation.
In its first year of operation, the hatchery produced 1 million fingerlings. Last year, production was up to 11 million and the production goal for this year is 20-25 million. Most of those fingerlings will be used to stock the Bowers' old ponds, but they could also be available to farmers in the are looking for a source of fish. What does the substantial investment in catfish mean for the Bowers company. "By next year," Bowers said, "We'll have about 605 acres of shrimp and 725 acres of catfish in Texas."
Despite his success with the Crustaceans, Bowers doesn't consider himself as a shrimp farmer per se, but rather then fish farmer. The Danevang farm isn't his first experience with catfish, either. "Catfish is the most hardy thing you can raise," Bowers said. "Red fish are pretty hardy. I enjoyed raising redfish. Striped bass and shrimp are harder to raise."
Bowers should know. He started raising catfish on his own in 1975 "but somebody stole all my fish." Several years later, Bowers began raising redfish but in 1989 he lost all his fry to winter freeze," and that's how I got into shrimp."
In 1994, that Bowers first visited Belize, where he ultimately leased land to build shrimp ponds. The market for striped bass had proved soft, and catfish weren't profitable because, "we had to haul out catfish to Mississippi for processing. That cost 10 cent a pound." Despite that problem, Bowers said," in 2002 the shrimp market was cut about in half so we decided, we better start thinking about something else again; have our eggs in two baskets instead of one." That led to a return to catfish, but this time with a difference.
With its longer growing season, Texas has some real advantages over other states when it comes to raising catfish, but in Bowers' view it still lacks the infrastructure needed to make catfish farming truly profitable. Bowers helped start the Texas Aquaculture Cooperative in 2001, and allowed the co-op to process catfish in his Palacios, which is basically unused for all but 6 weeks a year during the annual shrimp harvest. He also sells catfish through co-op, but doesn't believe that the co-op provides the entire answer for farmer who want to raise catfish in South Texas.
Although Bowers thinks there is a tremendous potential in catfish for farmers who want to raise something other than row crops, he said," I don't know what's gonna happen if we can't get a (another) processing plant here. There's not enough processing capacity in the area." There is one Processing plant nearby, of course, but the Texas Aquaculture Cooperative "would have to grow a lot to take care of everybody." While the co-op was established to provide the processing infrastructure for area farmers, Bowers said, "It's hard for them to expand."
"We've had several people come in and urge us to get into the processing business," said Reed Bowers, but the family isn't really anxious to do that. "We'd rather be the farmer than the processor", said Harold Bowers. "We're looking into it but we're sure not pushing it." "Right now", Bowers said, "there isn't much interest in anybody developing a major, privately owned processing facility around Palacios, but there is a lot of interest in trying catfish, because farming is so depressed in the area." "We've been keeping our fingers crossed hoping something would happen," Harold Bowers said, "so we may be forced into doing something." It doesn't seem improbable that if no one else is willing to build a processing plant, the Bowers' will, although if they do, Harold Bowers said, it will probably be only to handle the fish they grow.
Certainly, the Bowers' appear to have a strong commitment to growing catfish in the South Texas. Beside building a Hatchery, the family is thinking about buying some new brood stock. Eventually, Harold Bowers said, he hope they'll be able to work with catfish researchers at an institution like Mississippi State University on improvement of their brood stock.
"They're doing a lot of research", he said, "and we're open to getting in with them as much as we can."
So what is the future for catfish farming in South Texas? "I think it could be pretty big here", Harold Bowers said, "but there are plenty of obstacles." Besides the lack of processing facilities, there aren't any nearby rendering facilities for waste, and the cost of building new ponds is high. By the time all of the earthwork is done and the cost of wells, piping, and aeration is figured in, Reed Bowers said, it can cost between $5,000 and $6,000 per acre to create a pond, and that's without any land cost. "We would like to see aquaculture grow here", Harold Bowers said," but I wish there was more money in it. Then we could provide better jobs and perhaps get more support."