Mississippi’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, Dr. Lester Spell Jr., brings a unique blend of experience to his position overseeing one of the state’s most important industries.
In 1997, agriculture was worth about $20 billion to the Mississippi economy. In his leadership role, Spell, a veterinarian who’s been involved in farming and small business, as well as the mayor of Richland, is responsible for everything from food and livestock inspection to market development. Spell’s diverse background has helped him deal with the day-to-day challenges regulating and promoting Mississippi agriculture and commerce involves.
In this interview with the Mississippi Business Journal, Spell discusses trends in agriculture, the role of technology in agribusiness and the future of Mississippi’s ag economy.
Mississippi Business Journal: Give us an overview of Mississippi agriculture and discuss its economic importance to the state.
Lester Spell: Agriculture is the single largest dollar generating industry in Mississippi. In 1997, $4.6 billion worth of agricultural goods were grown, produced or sold in our state. And, when you factor in wages and agriculture related industries, that number rises to about $20 billion each year.
Agriculture makes possible the employment of one out of every three Mississippians.
MBJ: Does your department do anything that affects people who don’t live on farms or work in agribusiness?
LS: Our responsibilities at MDAC touch every Mississippian in some way almost every day. For example, we inspect all of our state’s 43,000 gas pumps to make sure you get a gallon of gas when you pay for one and that when you pay for 92 octane fuel, you get 92 and not 87. We inspect the meat you buy, both at 90 meat processing plants and at hundreds of grocery stores across the state. We check scales at grain elevators, timber yards and grocery stores.
We even have an investigative division, our Agriculture Theft Bureau, which can investigate crimes ranging from theft to arson. In short, the Department of Agriculture is a major factor in the life of every Mississippian.
MBJ: The Delta has always been dominated by agriculture, particularly cotton production. How is that changing today?
LS: Cotton remains a major presence in Mississippi. Overall, it is our third largest commodity, with a value in 1997 estimated around $650 million. But, one of the most important changes we are seeing in the Delta, as well as across the state, is the diversification of agriculture.
Now, in addition to cotton, the Delta is also home to the catfish industry, the fifth largest commodity in the state. In fact, Mississippi is the world’s number one producer and processor of pond-raised catfish. Most of the state’s soybeans and corn are grown in the Delta as well all of Mississippi’s rice crop. Cotton remains king as far as row crops in the Delta are concerned, but it is no longer the only kid on the block.
MBJ: What are other areas in the state doing agribusiness-wise?
LS: Mississippi’s two largest commodities, poultry and timber, are going very strong right now, though they are not nearly as prevalent in the Delta as they are in the rest of the state. But, just as in the Delta, diversification and value-added processing are the two major trends in agribusiness.
Value-added processing means that we are not only producing the raw material, but the finished product as well. I have already pointed out the fact that we not only grow catfish in the Delta, we process it into store- and restaurant-ready fillets as well. In the timber industry, we make the furniture as well as grow the trees and, in the poultry industry, we make chicken nuggets as well as raise chicken. The processing part of the equation is very important, because that is where much of the profit margin is for a commodity.
We are also developing processes in agribusiness that compliment each other. A sawmill, for example, not only takes timber and turns it into board lumber, it takes the sawdust and burns it for fuel. The sawmill also sells wood shavings to the poultry industry, which uses the shavings for poultry litter to raise chickens. This interconnectivity is not only practical, it helps make agribusiness in our state stronger.
We are developing export markets for our commodities and products. Our marketing division seeks new market opportunities for Mississippi products worldwide. I recently returned from Toronto, Canada where we promoted a variety of southern produce and our marketing director just returned from a trade mission to the Far East where he worked to expand the market for Mississippi aquaculture.
MBJ: How has technology impacted Mississippi agriculture?
LS: It is impossible to understate how much technology has changed agriculture in the last few years. From farming techniques to new types of crops, technology is enabling Mississippi farmers to stay competitive in the world marketplace.
Take, for example, a technique called “precision farming.” This is where a farmer, using satellite technology (Global Positioning Satellite or GPS) and computers, develops an extremely accurate map of his land that indicates everything from drainage to soil conditions. Then, using this map and available technology, the farmer can precisely apply pesticides and fertilizers, cutting down on the amounts of both needed to maximize yield.
Farmers are also using genetically-enhanced, or transgenic, varieties of crops such as soybeans and cotton. These crops allow further use of pesticides and fertilizers, bringing down the cost of production and keeping the farm competitive in the marketplace.
Farmers are also using technology in their homes. Survey after survey shows that people in agribusiness use computers and the Internet at rates higher than the population in general. From commodity and market reports to research and the latest weather, technology is giving our farming community information that previous generations could never have imagined.
MBJ: What roles are Alcorn State University and Mississippi State University, our land-grant institutions, playing in agribusiness?
LS: Alcorn State and Mississippi State play important roles in agriculture in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is research into new plant varieties, such as the work Mississippi State is conducting into kenaf, a possible enhancement to the timber industry. Other times these institutions help the farmers help themselves, as Alcorn State does with its Small Farmers Assistance Program.
Another important role for our land-grant institutions is training our agribusiness leaders of tomorrow. We have already seen how much technology has become part of the daily routine in agribusiness. We need leaders who are not afraid to use this new technology and be open to change when change is needed. Agriculture development is economic development. With assistance from our universities, we are better able to remain competitive in our production.
MBJ: What kind of future does Mississippi agriculture have?
LS: I believe the future looks very bright. Our agricultural economy in Mississippi is very strong right now, and that should continue. I recently attended an agriculture summit meeting where national experts talked about the future and Mississippi was in a very good position. We were not only doing the things we needed to be doing, such as value-added processing, but we also have the natural location to take advantage of international trade, which is a key to future growth.
I am Mississippi’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, and I take the “commerce” part just as seriously as the agriculture. A part of my job is to continue to identify and attract the development of more processing capability. This is where our long-term potential for