1st August, 2006: ALABAMA, USA - Southerners love their catfish, whether it's fried, grilled, between bread or in an etouffee.
Most of the catfish you eat comes from pond farms across the Southeast and processed at plants in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. Even catfish raised in northern Escambia County leaves the state to go to a processing plant -- until now.
Surrounded by more than 30 Century officials and catfish farmers Monday morning, Godwin Onohwosa broke ground on the site of a $6 million catfish processing plant he hopes to open in May 2007. It will be the only one in Florida.
Onohwosa, 50, a catfish processing plant owner from Newnan, Ga., said he hopes to open the doors to the plant on the 10-acre plot of land he purchased off U.S. 29 in Century's Industrial Park.
The plant will bring 20 jobs to the area for one processing line. If that is successful, a second line could be added, bringing another 17 jobs, Onohwosa said.
Onohwosa learned the business on a smaller plant he ran in Albany, Ga., but ran out of nearby catfish resources for the 4,000-square-foot plant. He was trying to recruit Century catfish farmers for the plant when he decided to relocate.
The South has had a catfish shortage after hurricanes damaged farms and farmers couldn't handle related financial burdens, said George Carpenter, president of Northwest Florida Catfish Growers Association.
The decreasing supply to the west has upped the demand in the Walnut Hill area, where more than 500 acres of catfish farms operate. One year ago, the area had between 600 and 800 acres, but some farmers couldn't handle the rising fuel costs to haul their freight to other processing plants, he said.
"That's why we need a processing plant here," Carpenter said. "A shorter haul means the fish will be in better condition, fresher, bringing a better price."
Restaurants and wholesale markets from as far as Miami have called Carpenter expressing interest in purchasing their catfish from the future Century plant.
That interest could help the lagging economy in Century, where unemployment hovers at 12 percent. If the plant is successful, Benny Barnes, Century's Chamber of Commerce president, envisions a feed mill in the future, completing the industry from start to finish, he said.
"I see this as something huge," he said.
Pensacola's Joe Patti Seafood Company buys 12,000 pounds of catfish filets a month, said owner Frank Patti. Right now, Patti buys his catfish from Mississippi and Alabama, but he would be interested in buying locally if the opportunity arises.
"If some comes from Florida, even better," he said. "As long as the quality is great."