By Becky Gillette
Photography by Roy Meeks & Matthew Wood
About 40 years ago, Harry Simmons began growing catfish as a way to diversify his income from row crop farming in Humphreys and Yazoo Counties. Through the years, his operation grew and became vertically integrated in 1982, by establishing a catfish processing facility. This expansion not only helped diversify Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish, but helped increase the employment opportunities for the surrounding area.
Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish is currently one of the largest non-governmental employers in Yazoo County, providing jobs to approximately 225 people. And the legacy of this agricultural entrepreneur who was recently named the 2016 Delta Council President goes far beyond his home county.
“Harry’s leadership and commitment to the Mississippi Delta will serve Delta Council well,” says Roger Barlow, executive director of The Catfish Institute. “He is business savvy and has been a visionary for the catfish industry for more than 30 years. Having worked with Harry through The Catfish Institute and Catfish Farmers of America for more than a decade, I can tell you that no one is more committed to his family, his faith, and to the local community. I know that Harry will work diligently to pursue the mission and goals of the Delta Council during his time as president.”
“I certainly hope I’m able to do what previous Delta Council presidents have done before me by staying on top of and abreast of the current issues,” Simmons says. “Delta Council has a very competent staff, and I just hope we can address some of the very important issues that arise concerning agriculture and economic development here in the Delta. Delta Council has done a great job of doing that for the past 80 plus years, and I’m confident the staff is going to continue to help us speak with a united voice to city, county, state and federal leaders.”
One of the biggest issues is flood protection. The major flood of 2011 only reinforced the importance of projects to protect the Delta from flooding. He also sees road conditions as being critical. “It is extremely important, that farmers and businesses have access to good roads and bridges to transport harvested crops and finished products safely and efficiently.
“We will be working with local communities on health care and employment issues, in addition to the agriculture policies that Delta Council has always been so active in,” Simmons adds. “Specifically, there have been a few issues lately concerning farm programs and the catfish inspection program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Those important items are ones I feel like I might be able to help address, along with the staff.”
The USDA inspection program for fish was created by the U.S. Congress in 2008 and was recently implemented in March. However, the U.S. Senate voted to void the current regulations. The inspection program, which catfish producers worked for many years to accomplish, is now in danger of being scrapped if the U.S. House also passes the legislation.
“The biggest challenge in our industry and many others is compliance with all the government regulations that are out there,” Simmons says. “They consume so much time, and there seems to be more all the time. That puts us at a competitive disadvantage with countries without any or minimal regulations.”
Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish takes pride in putting out a superior, delicious, healthy product. “We do a lot of testing before we ever bring catfish to the plant,” Simmons says. “We bring at least three samples of fish from a pond, and our quality assurance team will cook it, sample it, and ultimately approve or disapprove of it before harvesting and further processing. Flavor is so important, and you never want to produce and distribute something that isn’t of top quality. We work extremely hard to ensure that our product is very clean and packed like it should be. We have a sign in our plant: Quality is Everybody’s Business. I try to instill in all our workers how important it is to do little things right.”
The profitability in catfish farming has been up and down in the past five years. Feed prices, the largest input cost, were extremely high for a few of years. “We were getting really good prices for our fish in 2011; however, in early 2012 prices went down and stayed down for most of the year into 2013,” he says. “It gradually improved in 2013 and has stayed pretty steady and at a favorable rate since then.”
Simmons’ operation encompasses approximately 1,000 acres of catfish ponds, and he farms another 500 water acres with other partners. He also still grows corn and soybeans, and says that the strategy to diversify has been successful.
“When prices of commodities were high, and we were struggling on the catfish side, we were doing pretty good with row crops,” Simmons says. “Now that soybeans and corn don’t appear to be as profitable, the catfish are doing okay. So, yes, it was a pretty good diversification strategy if things continue to work like they have in the past.”
Simmons and his wife, Shirley, have been married 42 years and have two daughters, Emily Simmons, an interior designer in Jackson, and Katy Simmons Prosser, a trained chef who works at Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish along with her husband, Andy Prosser. Simmons said his daughter is working to introduce their product to people who aren’t that familiar with it or are reluctant to try it.
“She has been trying to increase the awareness of our brand and build our brand mostly through food service operators,” Simmons says. “She handles marketing and branding.”
Simmons likes to eat catfish three or four times a week. His favorite is his wife’s catfish spread on French bread, but he also loves catfish fried, grilled or sautéed.
With his volunteer positions on Delta Council and catfish organizations, in addition to farming and processing responsibilities, Simmons said he doesn’t have a lot of time for former hobbies like tennis and flying. But he enjoys watching football and especially spending time with his two-year-old grandson, Miller Prosser.