Friday, July 18, 2008

More changes in the food chain, and to rural economies, thanks in part to ethanol

A story with a dateline of Leland, Mississippi, population 5,502, appeared in today's New York Times. Journalist David Streitfeld reports that catfish farming has become unprofitable due to the high cost of the fish food, which is part corn, part soybean, and the low cost of imported catfish. John Dillard, who helped pioneer catfish farming in the 1960s, declares the business "dead."

See a slide show here. A caption on one photo in the series states that raising catfish has been an economic mainstay on the Mississippi Delta. The land previously used for artificial, shallow ponds for raising catfish will be used to grow corn, which is now much more profitable. The story further discusses the economic impact of catfish farming -- and its demise -- in the rural South, which Streitfeld characterizes as a "hard-luck, poverty-plagued region."

One of the most playful aspects of the piece touches briefly on catfish as culture. I like this quote:

Catfish started out as a local delicacy, widely celebrated in the lore of the Deep South. Mark Twain saluted it in “Life on the Mississippi.” A character in Eudora Welty’s story “The Wide Net” says after stuffing himself, “There ain’t a thing better.”

N.B. This has been one of the most emailed stories on the NYT website for most of the day; I wonder what about it attracts the attention of NYT readers, who are currently emailing the story about southern New England escapes, see the post below, at an even higher rate.

N.B. Another 24 hours on, it is 10:15 pm PST, and this story is no longer on the top-10 emailed list. The story about "134 miles of Yankee charm" is, however. Nevertheless, that piece is two steps below another travel story: "Seizing the day in Tel Aviv." Perhaps the popularity of these stories has more to do with the demographic of NYTimes readers. Many live in New York and might get to travel to the lovely spots featured in the Escapes section; the economy of rural Mississippi is of human interest, but not of any direct, short-term utility.

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