South-Eastern Pride plant opens doors
• New plant could mean much to local catfish farmers
By Parish Howard
In an old dairy barn on Mennonite Church Road nearly surrounded by ponds, an enterprising group of local entrepreneurs is turning fish cleaning into serious business.
Southeastern Pride, a farm-raised grain-fed catfish processing plant, recently opened by Burton Dye, Wayne Yost and Brian Lewis, is a providing a service many local farmers have had to count on from other states.
"The most impressive thing is that while we've heard stories about people trying to do this, this is the first group to take it from inception to a real plant and make it work," said Jim Crawford, Jefferson County's Extension Service Director. "They're starting off like they should and they appear to be the first ones in the state to be making it a reality."
Since 1999, Jefferson County has been the largest producer of commercial catfish in the state of Georgia. Over the last 10 years the county has seen a boom in the market, with, at one time, just under 600 acres of productive catfish ponds.
Aqualand and Southeastern Pride
According to the Georgia Farm Gate Reports, local production grew from about $97,000 in catfish income in 1996 to $630,000 in 1997. The trend held for a number of years, taking the county from fifteenth in the state to first in 1999 with about 400 acres of ponds and $1.2 million in reported income.
Production peaked in 2001-2002 when the county had just under 600 acres of ponds and reported $1.87 million in income from catfish.
But since then, while the county has retained its number one status, it has seen a drop in acreage and profits, largely because the few processing plants out there seem to be flooded with fish from neighboring states.
Last year, the total production area was down to 380 acres and the income to $950,000.
In 1996, Aqualand fish farm was started by Yost and another local farmer who grew up on family farms and happened to be in the grading and mining business. They combined their two interests, building ponds when business was slack. By 1998, Aqualand was operating 96 water acres and rode the local wave in surging catfish production.
In 2004, the other farmer sold sold his interest in the fish farm to Brian Lewis of Wrens.
Later that year, they purchased another 675 acres of farm land in the close geographical area of Aqualand, which included an additional 110 water acres.
"With Aqualand fish production and an additional 250 acres of catfish production in the area, we decided that the key element missing was a processing plant," Yost said.
Dye, a local restaurant owner, came onboard earlier this year and the three joined forces to create Southeastern Pride.
The plant began operations "cutting fish" Sept. 14 and, according to Dye, they are currently producing about 14,000 pounds of fish per month.
The fish are brought in and weighed as they come off the trucks. Then they are stored for a short time in large oxygenated vats at the rear of the plant. The fish are then scooped from the vats using a large over-head hopper and dumped a few at the time into a bin that leads into the wall of the plant.
What it Means
The crew of about eight full-time employees then begins the cleaning process.
One employee uses a stationary bandsaw to remove the heads. Then they are cut and gutted using vacuum-powered tubes that remove the insides in a matter of seconds. The fish are then skinned before being either filleted or chilled as whole fish.
According to Plant Manager Greg Lewis, the current crew can clean about 3,000 lbs. of fish in a day, but they usually see more like 2,000 lbs. One Atlanta-based retailer alone purchases about 2,250 lbs. of fish a week from them.
The fish are then frozen on site and packaged for shipping.
The plant offers whole fish, fillets, strips and nuggets.
Aqualand had been sending all of its fish to Mississippi for processing, Brian Lewis said, and then paying to have the boxed product shipped back to Atlanta for distribution.
"The shipping alone is expensive," Brian Lewis said. "The fish have to be shipped alive, and with that specialized freight it could cost us anything from $1,800 to $2,000 per load just in shipping to get a truck of about 25,000 lbs of fish to Mississippi."
Having the plant here in Jefferson County saves Aqualand money, and they believe it will save other local farmers who are currently sending their fish to Mississippi or North Carolina a good deal of money as well.
"All of our catfish producers have to be rooting for them," Crawford said Tuesday. "It's going to be great to have an outlet for fish they've been having trouble getting to Carolina. As a county, we have to diversify, and who knows catfish may be the answer. We can't live on cotton and peanuts forever. We can't grow corn like Iowa and we can't grow vegetables like California."
Fresh fish for sale
But catfish, well, that may be a different story.
While Aqualand does supply their base of fish, the Southeastern Pride owners say they are more than open to buying fish from local farmers; in fact, they're encouraging it.
"We need all the ponds we can get," Dye said. "Especially for those farmers who have raised them and fed them just right, but can't move them…we're here for them."
As the business grows, they expect to depend more and more on other area fish producers. Just last week they seined one local farmer's pond and purchased the fish, and they have already begun sharing information on what it takes to make fish that much more desirable.
"It only makes sense for us to work with the other local catfish farmers, to help them get their fish on-flavor," B. Lewis said. "It works for all of us."
Southeastern Pride is already providing fish to a number of local restaurants and grocery stores, as well as a number out of the area.
"These fish are hatched locally," Dye said. "They're born, raised, processed and, in many cases, cooked, right here in Jefferson County."
"Yeah, they go all the way from the egg to the plate right here," Brian Lewis added. "Our target area will eventually be the southeastern United States."
In addition to finding them in local restaurants like Lil' Jake's, the Little Dutch House, Dye's Fish Camp, Lewis' Lake and Peggy's Seafood, and grocery stores like IGA, Southeastern Pride is also making their products available in an in-plant market.
The market is open Thursdays and Fridays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but orders for fish on other days can be picked up every day except Sunday.
Eventually, they hope to add other fresh seafood at the market including shrimp, scallops and other fish.
Holton cleared by PSC
• Professional Standards Commission finds Holton innocent of tampering with AYP results for GCCS
By Faye Ellison
Glascock County Superintendent Jim Holton has been cleared by the Professional Standards Commission (PSC) of allegations that he allegedly falsified school attendance records to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
The PSC sent a letter to Holton dated Nov. 14 stating that after a complete and thorough investigation they found that there was no probable cause to take further action in this matter and that the case would be expunged from his record.
"I was confident that this would be the outcome of the investigation," Holton said. "I am pleased that we can go about the business of educating children without further personal or political distractions."
Holton originally received a letter from the PSC in September stating that a complaint had been filed against him by Kenneth Daniel alleging the falsifying of the attendance records.
For the past two years, Glascock County has met AYP standards, but in previous years had not, causing the school system to be on the Needs Improvement List. This year was the first time in six years that the school had not been on the list because it has met AYP standards for the past two years.
Glascock County Board of Education minutes from February show a projected absentee rate at 22 percent. Holton said at the June meeting that without any "unforeseen difficulties," the school system would meet AYP. At the end of the school year, Holton reported that his records showed a rate of 13.8 percent. A short time later the state released its figure of 11.6 percent.
For a school to meet AYP, the school system must have less than 15 percent of students in grades three through eight absent from school for 15 or more days.
Absenteeism rates had been a problem for Glascock County for some time with rates of 15 percent in 2002 and 2004, and 18.2 percent in 2003.
Holton said he figured the school's projected absentee rate by using the number of students that were currently enrolled in grades three through eight that had missed 15 or more days. The number of students enrolled was between 276 to 278.
According to Holton, the state used the number of students that had been in grades three through eight throughout the entire year, which was 303 students. The state also only counted students that had missed 16 or more days, leaving their rate at 11.6 percent.
At the beginning of the PSC investigation, Holton stated that he thought the investigation was politically motivated.
According to the PSC website, it is their full responsibility for the certification, preparation and conduct of certified or licensed or permitted personnel employed in the public schools of the state of Georgia. This includes superintendents.
The PSC also handles any investigation, advisement, monitoring and due process of cases associated with educator discipline.
Holton asks the citizens' continued support of the school system and their pupils.
"I want to thank the Glascock County community for their support of the school system during these past months," he said. "Our school system has made Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by the Georgia Department of Education for the second consecutive year.
"For the first time in six years the Glascock County School System is not on the state of Georgia's Needs Improvement List. We have a good school system that with strong community support can only improve."
Louisville food pantry is short on supplies
• Many items that would have been used locally were sent to hurricane victims out west
By Jennifer Flowers
Without assistance from the Louisville Food Pantry, many local people would have little food for daily meals, and the holidays would bring the most meager of offerings.
The way things are looking, food pantry volunteers are concerned about what they can offer needy families this holiday season.
As people all over the United States stepped in to support victims and evacuees of recent hurricanes, people in Jefferson County and across the United States did not hesitate to reach into their pockets and pantries to extract an offering. However, for some people, helping hurricane victims meant holding back on their support for local food banks.
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"The donations diminished as people contributed to other causes," said Sonny Saunders, a Louisville Food Pantry volunteer, citing recent hurricane victims as major recipients of the items.
Golden Harvest Food Bank of Augusta from which the Louisville Food Pantry purchases much of its goods at a reduced cost sent a lot of its supplies to assist hurricane victims.
Since the stock at Golden Harvest has been depleted, smaller food pantries such as the one in Louisville are not able to get the items they need.
While donations to local food banks have certainly been down since recent natural disasters occurred, the food pantry has still been working to serve the community's nutritional needs.
However, not being able to purchase goods from Golden Harvest at a reduced cost, food pantry volunteers have been forced to augment their stock by shopping for sale items at local grocery stores, further reducing their available funds by paying these retail prices.
Still, news of the food pantry shortage is spreading rapidly.
Local people have begun banding together upon hearing of the food pantry's need.
One local woman initiated a small food drive that produced over 800 lbs. of canned and dry goods.
She also spread the word to other community groups, encouraging an outpouring of support.
Several area churches, including First Baptist Church of Louisville and Louisville United Methodist Church, contributed, as did Jefferson EMC. Many individuals also lent a hand.
"It's starting to pick back up," said Saunders.
Still, more assistance is needed to carry the food pantry on through the busy holiday season. Both money and food contributions are necessary to help keep the pantry in operation.
"Most people don't realize the need we have here in the county," Saunders said. He noted that the people who get food from the pantry are primarily elderly, retired people with little income.
By the time they pay for housing, utilities and prescriptions, there is little money left for food.
That's why it is particularly vital for people in the community to act now.
Food, however, is not the only thing of which the Louisville Food Pantry is short. It is also in need of volunteers to distribute the food.
Open on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., the food pantry serves around 160 families each month.
Those interested in volunteering or looking for more information should contact Sonny Saunders at (478) 625-0838 or Julie Cofer Sargent at (478) 625-7722 or (706) 832-2875.
Leave a message and they will get back to you as soon as possible.
Contributions to the Louisville Food Pantry are tax-deductible.