Forbes Lipschitz finds poetry in the catfish pond landscapes of the Mississippi Delta.
By Brett Anderson
When Forbes Lipschitz, ASLA, was a senior at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, she created a series of larger-than-life portraits. The subjects were genetically modified animals. One portrays a sheep that, rendered bald by an injection, resembles a shar-pei. Another captures a goat bred to produce spider silk protein. “I was basically just interested in the moral ambiguity of biotechnology,” Lipschitz explains. “I was using the portrait as a means to reveal that complexity.”
The portraits constituted Lipschitz’s senior thesis at Pomona, where she studied environmental studies and art, a combo major she designed herself. The animal portraits are precociously accomplished feats of realism notably lacking in judgment. The fluoro-pig, for example, looks happy and, aside from being fluorescent, normal. Today, most of the artwork hangs in Lipschitz’s parents’ house in Little Rock, Arkansas. “The featherless chicken greets people somewhat ominously as you leave the kitchen,” she says.
The portraits represent Lipschitz’s first serious attempt to use art to interrogate humankind’s interventions in nature. The images provoke questions—why make pigs fluorescent?—but steer clear of harsh critique, foreshadowing the probing but reasoned tone that has become a hallmark of the 31-year-old landscape architect’s work.
At the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Lipschitz took poultry production in Northwest Arkansas, where she grew up, as her thesis subject. The region is home to Tyson Foods, a giant in an industry that has attracted criticism from environmental and animal rights activists. Lipschitz investigated “the environmental and social implications of that industry,” she says, “but I also tried to find some opportunities and maybe synergies to make it more culturally and ecologically productive.”
In her thesis, The New Rotational Pattern: Syncing Livestock Production and Urban Systems in the Broiler Belt, Lipschitz wanted to find ways to improve, as opposed to simply demonize and dismantle, an industry that has become central to both the culture and economy of her native Arkansas.
“When you look at global population rates, and the fact that we have a rising middle class, you really can’t say that people are all of a sudden going to stop consuming meat or fish,” Lipschitz says. “We never really had a sustainable, balanced harmony with agriculture. It’s always been something that’s been highly manipulated and oftentimes damaging. I’m interested in how we can develop contemporary models of agricultural production that sort of work within that existing agri-industrial complex. My thesis was kind of my entry point.”
Lipschitz was waiting on lunch at Pêche Seafood Grill, a fashionable restaurant in New Orleans’s Warehouse District. It was the fall of 2014, one year after Lipschitz arrived at Louisiana State University as an assistant professor and a Suzanne L. Turner Professor at the Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture. Lipschitz suggested she prefers New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where LSU is located, for reasons that would be easy to guess if you met her. With a taste for bright lipstick and costume jewelry, Lipschitz settles easily into New Orleans’s bohemian tableau. But she’s still happier in staunchly conservative Baton Rouge than many of her fellow academic transplants.
“I understand that it’s a red state, and that people are Republican,” Lipschitz says. “But because I’m from Arkansas, I am used to being a liberal outsider.”
Lipschitz’s experiences as southerner, outsider, and artist provide her a unique perspective on landscapes occupied by livestock. They inform the work that has distinguished her tenure at LSU, landing her a Graham Foundation grant and ultimately propelling her to the Ohio State University, where she started teaching this fall as an assistant professor in the landscape architecture section of the Knowlton School of Architecture.
Her work concerns catfish farming. The industry has deep roots in Arkansas, but Lipschitz first started thinking about it seriously just a few years ago, when she was teaching an LSU design studio in the Mississippi Delta. The Delta, as it is commonly referred to in the Deep South, is an impoverished section of one of the country’s poorest states. It is also to farm-raised American catfish what Florida is to citrus fruit.
Lipschitz’s students “were looking at different economic models, through the lens of landscape architecture, for ways to address rural poverty in the Delta,” she says. One student project focused on catfish farming, occasioning Lipschitz to think deeply about the practice for the first time. “It was a really interesting land use that I hadn’t really considered before.”
Catfish farms are roughly as sexy as catfish themselves. Because the farms need to accommodate ponds, they tend to be flat. Because the ponds need to accommodate catfish, their water is murky. The results are expansive landscapes that appear muddy and barren, at least as far as the human eye can see. When I visited America’s Catch, a large catfish farm and processing facility in Itta Bena, Mississippi, I saw more than that: a productive ecosystem of fish, waterfowl, and farm workers. It’s a landscape that may be as “natural” as anyone can reasonably expect in an area that human intervention had thoroughly disfigured by the time catfish farms became part of the culture, just over three decades ago.
My deeper vision first came into focus at Lipschitz’s office at LSU, in the spring of 2015. She clicked through nearly 90 minutes of images, all shown on her computer monitor, and the result of her catfish research, including aerial photographs taken with the drone she purchased with her Graham grant funds. Her immersion in the subject took her to the Delta on multiple occasions, and the time she spent on catfish farms, with catfish farmers, and inside production facilities altered her views on conservation and food systems.
“When I think of Michael Pollan and work like his, the thrust is that conventional agriculture is always bad,” Lipschitz says, before wincing at her own words. “I’ve learned not to say ‘industrial agriculture.’ Farmers don’t appreciate that.” She says she prefers the terms “conventional agriculture” and “large-scale working landscapes,” and then continued: “The well-educated section of our society with a large disposable income can afford to discriminate in regard to their food consumption, yet they have become really critical [of conventional agriculture] in a way that’s kind of antiscience and antiprogress. They think we should go back to how things used to be. That’s why I think this is an interesting project. It’s saying, here’s a contemporary, conventional system, and actually, it’s already good in some ways.”
Lipschitz pulled up an image created from the geospatial database held by the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative. It showed a bird’s-eye view of a patch of Delta agricultural land, laid out like a grid drawn without the benefit of a ruler. “You can see what’s green and yellow is corn and soy,” Lipschitz explains, touching a finger to the colored shapes on the screen. “What’s blue is either wetlands or catfish ponds. That’s what we want to bring to life.”
Catfish farming caught fire in the Delta in the 1970s and 1980s, as farmers plowed under row crops—largely soybean and cotton—that had become less reliably profitable during the era’s farming crises, and replaced them with catfish ponds. The clay-rich soil found in much of the Delta, where catfish was already popular game for recreational fishers, was particularly well-suited to the practice. In his book Catfish and the Delta, Richard Schweid wrote, “By 1990, catfish farming had become a sophisticated, megabucks aqua business” in Mississippi, “where more catfish are grown than in all of the rest of the world.”
By the time Lipschitz started looking into catfish farming, the U.S. industry was in trouble. (Ninety-four percent of the country’s production comes from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, according to the Catfish Institute.) The decline started in the late 2000s and continued into the 2010s, as a perfect storm of factors—the recession, Asian imports, drought, high feed prices, and government incentives to plant crops for biofuel—drove catfish farmers out of the business. In 2012, the New York Times reported that the U.S. farm-raised catfish industry “has shrunk by half since its peak a decade or so ago.”
In her research, Lipschitz found no shortage of reasons to bemoan the catfish industry’s plight, particularly in the Delta. The industry is “highly localized,” she says. “They build the nets in the Delta, they build aerators in the Delta, they process [the fish] in the Delta.” Not only is the meat inexpensive, but the feed-to-weight ratio for catfish makes it one of the most sustainable animal proteins on the market. And its cultural importance is written all across the Delta, from the catfish art at the annual World Catfish Festival in Belzoni, Mississippi, to the blackened Delacata fillets—a grade A catfish cut marketed locally like a tenderloin steak—found on the menu at Giardina’s restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi’s stately Alluvian Hotel. (On a recent visit to Empire State South, a forward-looking southern restaurant in Atlanta, I was reminded that catfish could benefit from image buffing, at least in the white tablecloth world. “Don’t worry, it’s not just mud shaped like a fish,” my waiter said, after I asked about the catfish on the menu. “We’ve got a good supplier.”)
But Lipschitz was particularly struck by the ecological benefit catfish farms provide. Before modern flood-control systems were put into place, allowing for agriculture to thrive in some of Mississippi’s most fertile areas, the Delta was regularly inundated by floodwater from the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. Lipschitz discovered that shallow catfish ponds provide habitat for migrating waterfowl that simulates habitat provided by the flooding rivers before the levees came along.
Turning back to an aerial image of the Delta, Lipschitz points out, “You can see how the catfish ponds are sort of related to what was historically inundated. And so we can see that it’s filling a similar purpose in the landscape today.”
Over the past two years, Lipschitz has turned her attention to visually communicating catfish farming’s positive attributes. She enlisted the help of Justine Holzman, Associate ASLA, an adjunct assistant professor at the School of Landscape Architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Together they took a page from Lipschitz’s Pomona thesis and started to look to the landscape paintings of the Arkansas artist Carroll Cloar for inspiration. One particular Cloar painting called Children Pursued by Hostile Butterflies inspired a “digital drawing” of a catfish pond that Lipschitz brought onto her monitor. It depicts both the fish underwater and the 50-plus waterfowl that depend on the pond throughout the year. The image also appears to be of museum quality, simultaneously serene and overflowing with life.
“In this information age, we’re confronted with data visualizations all the time. There are a lot of bright colors, but it’s really hard to understand the real message or narrative,” Holzman says. “The idea here is to suggest this is the impact that one catfish pond can have.”
Lipschitz hopes to spread such positive, nuanced views of the catfish industry in an effort to ultimately secure for farmers government incentives to stay in business. “No one talks about these positive impacts,” she says. “They’re not advertised. You don’t buy much catfish at Whole Foods. They’re not catering to that market. When I talk to people in the industry, they just say it’s not worth their time. They stake everything on it being an affordable meat, and they just want to get it to restaurants as cheaply as possible.”
Those were primary concerns expressed by Solon Scott III, the owner of America’s Catch, when he took me on a tour of his family’s catfish ponds in July. We drove his pickup along the narrow dirt roads bordering the 600-plus ponds that stretch for two miles, north to south, on the 5,000-acre farm in Itta Bena. Scott was hospitable to Lipschitz, who took extensive photographs on his property, including views inside the processing plant, a level of access she repeatedly said would be unthinkable if she were studying, for instance, the pork industry.
As we drove, Scott recalled meeting the young woman from LSU, with her cameras and drone, but admitted he didn’t fully understand the nature of her interest. Later, he introduced me to America’s Catch’s latest hire, Trevor Luna, a recent graduate of the master’s program in aquaculture/fisheries management at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Luna was working inside the hatchery located on the farm, and his fluency in the science behind the catfish business was striking, particularly coming from someone so young. As we walked out, Scott said, “We need a lot of people to pitch in to help us figure out how to better raise fish.”
The fruit of Lipschitz and Holzman’s work is called On the Pond, a collection of photographs, text, maps, and digital paintings that “seeks to elucidate the cultural and ecological significance of catfish farming.” The exhibit will debut at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas, in the spring of 2017. They hope the exhibit travels beyond Helena, ideally to a museum in Jackson, Mississippi’s most populous city.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to communicate to a really broad audience that might include decision makers, farmers, and laypeople,” Lipschitz says.
Just because Lipschitz found poetry on the catfish ponds hardly means the industry has always been a reliable source of sweet music. The Delta’s stark socioeconomic divide runs along racial lines. The late Ed Scott, founder of Pond Fresh Catfish, is the rare African American who was able to claw his way to success in the historically racist Delta. As the writer Julian Rankin writes in a recently published profile of Ed Scott in Gravy Quarterly, blacks “were largely forgotten” in the “agricultural recalibration” that gave rise to Mississippi’s catfish industry.
Lipschitz is well aware that catfish farming enriched white landowners like Solon Scott’s family more than African American laborers. She’s also aware that the number of jobs provided by operations like America’s Catch dwarf those provided by row crop farms. Solon Scott told me he employs 400 people between his farm and processing plant—and that the number would shrink to “around 10” if he decided to convert the farm to soy or cotton.
“You can’t overstate how important these jobs are to the Delta,” Lipschitz tells me. Removing them, she suggested, could destroy communities with no other industries to fall back on.
Lipschitz’s new tenure-track position at Ohio State is funded by the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation, a transdisciplinary project focused on food security. Casey Hoy, an OSU entomology professor, serves as the faculty director of the initiative. He describes a Corn Belt beset with many of the same problems found in the Delta, and suggests Lipschitz will play a visionary role in OSU’s $120 million project to help address them.
“It’s very cultural how we respond to food and how we respond to land,” Hoy says. “That’s where Forbes is. If we’re going to re-envision and reinvent food and agricultural systems, what does that look like? How can they be redesigned at different scales? That cultural, art, and design part kind of underlines everything.”
Lipschitz is excited to apply the ways of seeing and thinking she’s developed to the Midwest, but she vows that her catfish project isn’t fully complete.
“How do you start to communicate these landscapes?” Lipschitz asked when I spoke to her by phone in July. “How do you overlay their social and ecological meaning?” She was talking both about the work she has yet to start in Ohio as well as the work she left behind in the South. “That’s what this exhibition is all about, communicating what’s not seen. When you drive through the Delta, you see these ponds. They don’t seem that active. You can’t see that there’s 150,000 breathing bodies in those ponds.”
Brett Anderson is the restaurant critic and a features writer at NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.