Belzoni, Mississippi (pronounced bel-ZONE-ah) may be the Catfish Capitol of the World, but the farm behind one of the catfish industry’s premium brands is located just south, nearer Yazoo City, Mississippi.
Harry Simmons began catfish farming in 1977. In 1982, convinced he could do a better job than the larger catfish processors, he began processing and distributing the catfish he grew on his farm. Today, Simmons Catfish produces, processes and distributes approximately twenty million pounds of premium catfish products a year.
Simmons invites customers and interested consumers to visit their farm and processing facility. On the day of our tour, Katy Simmons Prosser, who grew up on this farm and today serves as its Marketing Director, drove us through acres upon acres of catfish ponds laughingly telling stories of her childhood on this farm before soberly describing the near catastrophe of the 2011 spring floods and ultimately pulling up to a pond where we watched it be seined.
Seining is an impressive process using a large mesh made of rope covered in a material that is gentle to all of the fish, allowing smaller fish to escape, so they can continue to grow to a harvestable size. We watched as the smiling harvesters navigated the net slowly from one end of the pond to move the harvestable fish, still alive, into a smaller area where they are then harvested into live well transport trucks to the processing facility. We were impressed with level of care and responsibility Simmons takes to maintain the sound ecology, safety and health of their ponds for their fish, their employees and ultimately, consumers. This wouldn’t be the last time we noted this care – or smiling faces – during our visit.
As we drove towards the processing facility, Prosser explained that Simmons Catfish has developed their own proprietary healthy vegetarian feed for their fish, which contributes to the consistent, sweet, preferred flavor associated by many chefs with their catfish brand.
Back at the processing facility, we learned that the official taster for Simmons Catfish tastes a sample from each live well, of which there are several per truck upon their arrival at the processing facility. If the catfish sample does not pass her taste test, then a team of testers taste the fish. If they agree, the entire load of fish is rejected.
Harry Simmons says, “Over 90% of the time, the tasting team agrees with our official taster. The quality of our fish is critically important because my family’s name is on each box we ship out of here.”
On our tour of the processing facility, we verified what we had heard to be true from chefs who had visited previously. The facility is an impressively clean, happy work place. Many employees have been loyal for decades, and Harry Simmons rewards loyalty and quality of work with generous pay and bonuses as well as public recognition – noted by plaques honoring employees in various areas of service lining the walls of the plan as well as walk-in freezers, kitchen doors and more. This hidden jewel in the Mississippi Delta produces more than catfish – Simmons Catfish also produces a sense of pride, quality and reward for all who work here.
Simmons Catfish brand farm-raised catfish is served at top quality restaurants across the United States, including many of the South’s best restaurants. For more information, to order products or to arrange your own farm tour, visit www.simmonscatfish.com.
Photos from the 2011 Spring Floods