Turner Arant wasn't exactly there at the creation, but he was close enough to be called a pioneer, and he gets a visionary gleam in his eye when he starts talking about the ponds.

They stretch for miles across the flat Mississippi River Delta, squarish breaks among the cotton, soybeans and rice, and they hide one of the best kept secrets in American agriculture.

The secret is the catfish. Plain old channel catfish.

Turner Arant, of course, is in on the secret. He's been raising catfish in his ponds for 20 years and is a messianic promoter of the glory of these farm-grown, grain-fed fish that provide income for hundreds of farmers.

"We're looking at a $100 million-a-year industry today," Arant said, "but our research people see it as a $1 billion industry in 10 years . . . .What we've got here is a unique industry--more so because the farmers are controlling all aspects of the business. Growing. Feed production. Processing. Marketing."

But Arant's farm-raised catfish are a far cry from the gamy variety that weekend anglers pluck from the Potomac River. These fish, fed a sophisticated mix of grains just as a farmer would feed hogs or cattle, produce a flaky, delicate meat that is rapidly finding its way to American dinner tables.

Farmers here will produce almost 200 million pounds of catfish this year, but they've only just begun to meet the demand. It doesn't take much leap of fancy to see the low-fat, high-protein catfish one day becoming as basic to the American diet as beef, pork and poultry.

Bille Hougart, coordinator of a $7 million aquaculture research and development program at the Department of Agriculture, sees the catfish boom as just one aspect of a big new interest in farm-grown fish and shellfish.

"There is a tremendous opportunity for growth in catfish," he said, "but interest in all of aquaculture is growing . . . . Aquaculture research is going on at perhaps 35 universities. It has been called the 'blue revolution'--a sort of marine equivalent of the green revolution we've heard so much about."

Because of benign climate and plenty of water, catfish farming is concentrated in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama, although by some estimates as many as 9,000 farmers are raising catfish commercially across the Sun Belt states.

Mississippi accounts for at least 70 percent of national output, which comes from ponds of the sort constructed by Arant and about 400 other Mississippi farmers, most of whom grow other crops and are well-enough heeled to afford the high start-up costs of catfish production.

There is, however, an important difference in the way Mississippians have gone about their catfish business. In cooperative fashion, farmers own three of the state's five major processing plants. They likewise own two huge feed mills that can turn out more than 600 tons of soybean-corn-wheat pellets every day.

The result is that their feed costs about $10 a ton less than they would pay a commercial mill and, by owning the modern processing plants, they assure themselves of a market for their fish.

"We control our own destiny," said Lester Myers, who raises catfish on 575 acres of ponds and manages the Delta Western cooperative feed mill at nearby Indianola. "We are getting stronger and stronger."

This is, it turns out, a capital-intensive business made for dice-rollers who have that special glint of eye. Mark Freeman, executive vice president of Catfish Farmers of America, based in Jackson, gets a bit effusive, but listen to his explanation:

"This industry will be one of the greatest things in the evolution of mankind. I fell in love with this concept in 1955--at a time when they'd get a faraway look in their eyes and they'd talk to your doctor when you mentioned farming fish . . . . What drives these men is money, but they are putting their footprints in the sands of time, where no feet have been. They're called pioneers. They're driven. It is a terminal sickness."

No one is about to call Turner Arant driven or terminally sick, but there's no doubting that he's under the spell of the catfish. He is one of the biggest farmers in Sunflower County and, in fact, calls his place a plantation. He is harvesting fish from 500 acres of 20-acre ponds.

It began 20 years ago when Arant installed a pond on his plantation and stocked it with catfish for sport. The fish multiplied like aquatic rabbits, crowding the pond. Arant called a commercial harvester to come over from Arkansas and clean out his pond. He later got a check for $3,500 in the mail and, just like a fish, he was hooked.

Farmers here build their ponds by forming dikes and filling the flats with water pumped from the delta. The ponds are stocked with tiny fingerlings, often provided by hatcheries, and then the fish are left to grow a year or more. Trucks move along roads between the ponds, spewing catfish feed pellets onto the water.

When a pond is ready for harvest, a crane is moved into place, a huge net is cast into the water, the catfish are corraled and then lifted from the trap in a huge basket. They're put on ice and trucked immediately to the nearby processing plants.

Arant's harvest goes to Delta Pride Catfish Processors at Indianola, the cooperative that he and 116 other farmers set up five years ago. They are doubling the size of the plant this year to enable it to handle 50 million pounds annually.

In five minutes from kill to chill, a catfish moves up and down processing lines where it is hand-cleaned, boned, filleted or cut into steaks, frozen and packaged and sent on to retail outlets signed up by Delta Pride's marketing team.

A couple of things about farm-raised catfish make the appeal of its future obvious. It is high in nutrition and economical to raise, yielding a pound of meat for every 1.7 pounds of feed--better than poultry and hogs and four times more efficient than beef.

And, since they are pioneers in a fledgling industry, these farmers are learning as they go, and researchers at Mississippi State University are heavily involved in disease and genetic work to improve yields.

"Remember," Freeman said, "God laid into our hands a wild animal with nothing done to it yet. We think this research is going to produce amazing improvements."

Lester Myers, a former president of the association, elaborated:

"We are today where poultry was 25 years ago. We are a haphazard art, they are a science . . . . But where we get 3,500 pounds per acre today, we'll be getting 8,000 pounds in five years."

But science isn't the whole deal, Turner Arant seemed to be saying at lunch one day. Before he dug into a plate of fried cat and hush puppies, he bowed his head and said, "Lord, we ask Thy blessing on this old catfish we're about to take up."