In an ongoing look at the statewide campaigns for governor and lieutenant governor, the Mississippi Business Journal talked with Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Mike Parker, Amy Tuck and Bill Hawks last week about the future of agribusiness in Mississippi
Democratic and Republican candidates for governor and lieutenant governor expressed concerns about grim crop prices, federal farm policys’ shift of control in the marketplace, a pending multi-billion dollar emergency appropriation bill and an industry that employs approximately 30% of the state’s workforce and contributes more than $16 billion to the state’s economy.
Ronnie Musgrove, currently serving as lieutenant governor and Democratic nominee for governor, said a critical shortage of skilled, trained workers is the most pressing issue in agribusiness in Mississippi.
“Most crops grown in Mississippi are shipped to neighboring states for processing,” Musgrove said. “Our raw cotton is turned to fabric and our chickens are processed into broilers adding value to the products we produce. We need to place renewed emphasis on attracting and investing in processing facilities that provide higher wage jobs for residents and keep profits right here in Mississippi. The only way to support such facilities is to supply them with the workers to make them run efficiently and successfully.”
Cotton, Mississippi’s number one crop, is grown in more abundance than any crop worldwide. The result is a cotton glut that has driven prices down and eliminated profits, Musgrove said.
“We need to insure that farmers do not lose the safety net that protects them against crop failure and collapsing commodity prices,” he said. “We also need to help improve farmers’ ability to rotate crops to grow products that yield the highest profit for a given year. Crop rotation allows for more abundant harvests in the future. We need to create a governor’s council on agriculture/agribusiness to include farmers, academia, scientists, and Delta Council members to develop strategies that make technology more available to farmers and improve operational efficiency in agriculture.”
The 1996 Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform (FAIR) Act eliminated the safety nets for Mississippi farmers and slashed funding for agriculture programs by $4.3 billion. The farm bill is a perfect example of Washington being out of touch with the needs of Mississippi farmers, Musgrove said.
“There is no doubt that farmers, like all businesses, need to maximize efficiency, but that is no reason to eliminate the safety net that protects family farms from financial ruin,” he said. “Our farmers deserve the same protections and incentives we provide smaller industries that we encourage to locate in the state.”
The proposed emergency appropriation bill will support farmers through this year’s low crop prices, Musgrove said.
“We need to make the long-term investments in agribusiness to give Mississippi farmers the wherewithal to survive similar economic difficulties in the future without regular federal intervention,” he said. “We saw crop prices increase just last week. I am hopeful that the increasing prices we traditionally see every fall will allow Mississippi farmers to not just cover their expenses, but still turn a profit. In the meantime, we need to make low interest loans available to farmers that could be forced out of business.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Parker said no other state’s economy is more dependent on agriculture than Mississippi’s.
“Growing up in Mississippi, I know the importance of our local farmers, many of whom are my personal friends,” Parker said. “As a cattle farmer myself, there are two things I hope for each year when I sell my cattle. First, that I am able to pay my expenses and secondly, to get a decent return. This applies to any farmer. With soybeans, cotton, rice and so on, if the commodity prices are low, the return is low. Therefore, farmers end their season in the red. As governor, I would help the state of Mississippi work closely with the congressional delegation in any way possible to enable them to receive the assistance they need to help them succeed.”
With some seasoned agribusiness lenders saying this is the worst year for crop prices since the 1960s, farmers must be aware of their finances, Parker said.
“(Farmers) should be able to sit down with financial institutions and plan each year based on equity positions,” he said. “We can also help by educating the public on the problems in agribusiness. If our farmers cannot succeed, we will lose the privilege of the low prices available now on the food that we feed our own families.”
Farming has been the lifeblood of Mississippi from the beginning by providing food on tables, jobs and the use of natural resources, Parker said.
“Many farmers began with a small plot of land owned by their families,” he said. “They have literally worked by the sweat of their brow to provide not only for their family, but for yours and mine as well. Mississippi farmers, small or large, have the production capabilities to control their own destiny if given the ability to receive a fair market price. The federal government must be called upon to protect this valuable industry which began with the small farmers. The farming community must be provided with assistance to help them to build equity, especially in a bad year when Mother Nature is not exactly predictable.”
Parker, a former U.S. Congressman, said providing disaster funding is only one solution.
“Having served in Congress for 10 years, I know how to work with congressional leaders and how to help them make their case in Congress,” he said. “In agriculture, there is always risk involved, and at times a temporary solution is needed. As we move into the 21st century, we will need to take a stand for the farming community, which faces many challenges.”
As the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Amy Tuck said rural Mississippi – and rural farmers – should not be allowed to fade away.
“We want our larger cities and suburbs to prosper and thrive, but Mississippi must not forget its smaller cities, towns and communities,” she said. “Farmers buy tractors, irrigation equipment, seed and fuel. They support rural doctors, schools, and retail outlets. If elected, I will work with the relevant agricultural committees in the state and in Congress to increase farm income, gain access to world markets, reform crop insurance, and to decrease the tax burden on families which inherit farms in estate settlements.”
With commodity prices at 30-year lows and price projections for 1999 showing a 42% decline in wheat, 39% decline in corn, 26% decline in soybeans and 9% decline for cotton, farmers across the nation and in Mississippi are having a rough time, Tuck said.
“Financial problems in Russia, Asia, and South America in the last two years have triggered an $11 billion decline in foreign demand for U.S. food and fiber,” she said. “Our country repeatedly produces the highest quality, highest quantity agricultural yields in the world. We are so productive, in fact, that two-thirds of what we grow must be exported. Because we are so productive, and because we must continue to have access to world markets, I would advise farmers to work with me to continually push down the barriers to foreign markets.”
Free trade should equate fair trade, Tuck said.
“Our agricultural markets are open to products from other countries, but far too often our Mississippi corn, soybeans, beef, pork, chicken, cotton, catfish and other products are not allowed entry int
o foreign ports,” she said. “We need to facilita
te a good working relationship with USDA trade officials. We have mechanisms to force a level playing field. When tariffs go down, demand goes up,