STARKVILLE — Most people know that the Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension Service helps farmers be more efficient and productive. But few may realize how improvements in agricultural production can translate into millions of dollars worth of extra income in the state.
Roughly 25% of the economy in Mississippi is linked to agriculture and forestry. Ronald A. Brown, director of the MSU Extension Service, said because agriculture is so dominant in the state’s economy, technological improvements in agriculture can be very significant.
“One good example is our SMART program which applies research technology to agriculture,” Brown said. “This is a demonstration program we use with soybeans. The people who participate in this program average about 14 bushels per acre of soybeans more than those who don’t. That equals about $100 per acre more profit. If we applied that to just half of the state’s two million soybean acres, that would yield an additional $100 million worth of income to our agriculture producers.”
The SMART program is partially supported by the Soybean Promotion Board.
The Extension Service also plays a key role in assisting business developments related to agriculture. For example, the Extension Food and Fiber Center conducted feasibility studies for Pride of the South Catfish Inc., a catfish processor, helping them increase their processing capacity from 40,000 pounds per day to 80,000 pounds per day. Employment grew from 100 to 150 people. Other partners assisting in that effort included catfish organizations, and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
Today, “precision agriculture” uses state-of-the-art equipment to allow farmers to produce high yields at the lowest possible price. New, faster methods for diagnosing disease are also being used. For example, the Extension Service now uses digital cameras to diagnose plant diseases. In the past, a sample had to be driven or mailed to campus for evaluation. Now a digital camera can be used to take a photo of the disease, and the information immediately sent to specialists for diagnosis. Recommendations can come back quickly.
“In one case in north Mississippi it saved a greenhouse grower $8,000 because we could get a quick recommendation back to her,” Brown said. “In this case, if we had not been able to do it quickly, the crop would have been lost.”
Dr. John R.C. Robinson, an Extension ag economist, said that the Extension Service not only helps agricultural producers be as competitive as possible, it also invests in developing new kinds of crops. He points to the catfish, sweet potato and greenhouse tomato industries as enterprises that have benefitted from publicprivate partnerships investing in research and extension. Research into alternative crops gives farmers more diversity in choosing what to grow, allowing them to find niches in the marketplace.
Robinson said the trend for the past 50 years has been towards larger and fewer numbers of farms due to economies of scale from larger operations. Modern equipment is so expensive that larger acreages must be farmed to justify the expense. There are few small family farms anymore where farming is the primary occupation. But Robinson points out that a lot of the larger farms are still owned by families. For example, Tyson Foods is a family corporation, and a lot of the corporate farms in the Delta are owned by families.
The Extension Service is also involved in family and youth programs such as 4-H. Besides providing leadership training for young people, other programs include one called Bright Futures that is designed to help teenage pregnant mothers learn good nutrition to have healthy babies. Another important goal of the program is to prevent a second teen pregnancy.
Brown said the county in Mississippi selected for the pilot program enrolled 391 pregnant teenage clients. Over an 18-month period the average second pregnancy rate for the teenagers dropped from a previous average of 60% to just 2%.
“This doesn’t create a new business, but it saves tremendously in state expenses in health care and in all the services provided to people who need the state’s help,” Brown said. “So we have programs in agriculture that really build the economy, and help put more people to work. We also have programs that deal with families and young people, and help people to live more wisely.
“Today’s family and youth programs focus on the problems that people have today such as teenage pregnancy, family financial management, nutrition, and food safety. For example, we have trained more than 8,000 people in a program called ServeSafe. This provides safety certification training for food service establishments. The general public today is much more concerned with food safety, and this is a program offered to employees of food service establishments. That’s an example of a modern family and consumer education program.”
Other less known Extension Service programs include those that provide training to government officials. The Extension Service has trained about 14,000 public officials in Mississippi such as city clerks, purchasing agents, and county supervisors.
Another element of the Extension Service that may not be that well known to the public is the key role played by volunteers. An estimated 15,000 volunteers in the state have been trained in areas such as preventing child abuse, care for the elderly, 4-H youth program, and horticulture. It is estimated Extension Service volunteers provide $16 million worth of free services each year.