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Spell: Preserving ag as we know it should be priority

Mississippi Business Profile: Lester Spell, MDAC commissioner

Under Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell’s tenure in office, the state department of agriculture has been reorganized and streamlined, technology and efficiency have been improved and new marketing programs have been implemented.

“Today, we have about 18% fewer people working for the department than when I came in office almost four years ago,” said Spell. “During the same time, productivity has increased about 20%. I attribute that to several things – hard-working employees, doing the job smarter, using a lot of technology and cutting out redundant paperwork and records that didn’t produce any meaningful information.”

For example, employees directly log information into computers rather than turning completed reports over to a secretary to do the same task, Spell said.

“People may ask, ‘how can you measure productivity?’” Spell said. “We do so many things that are regulatory in nature, such as the inspection of 43,000 gas pumps in the state for which we are responsible for the accuracy of meters. When we pull test samples, check grocery store shelves, livestock sales, timber yards and grain elevators, recycling places that buy aluminum cans, meat inspections and sanitary inspections in grocery stores, the number of inspections are measured and we have shown a measurable increase in productivity with fewer employees.”

The Mississippi Legislature expanded the state agriculture department’s marketing authority to develop and implement Make Mine Mississippi, a marketing program to help promote Mississippi products and agriculture, Spell said.

“We began looking around and discovered that Mississippi didn’t have a real logo with any type identification where consumers could identify Mississippi products,” Spell said. “Our marketing department came up with the idea of ‘Make Mine Mississippi,’ and today, more than 270 companies in the state that sell food, novelty, specialty, furniture, electronics and other products, have joined the program. It doesn’t cost a dime for companies to join. As long as they grow, manufacture or process a product in our state, they qualify. If they bring raw materials in, and a portion has been pre-manufactured, as long as 51% of value is added in the state, that company qualifies.”

Research has shown that almost 90% of Mississippians would purchase Mississippi-made products, even if they had to pay more, Spell said.

“Make Mine Mississippi gives us name identification for consumers,” he said. “The first phase of the program was to enlist companies. This fall, we’ll begin the consumer awareness phase. It should boost sales for Mississippi-made products and will certainly create a lot of pride within the state.”

Last year, the state department of agriculture kicked off the Farmer’s Market Nutritional Program in conjunction with the state health department, Spell said.

“The state department of agriculture issues food coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables that can be redeemed at local participating farmer’s markets,” he said. “Coded vouchers are picked up at local WIC offices. Then, we pay farmers for the coupons. We also go out to the farms and verify the produce that is being grown and sold. The Farmer’s Market Nutritional Program has been an asset to small farmers.”

In 1996, the state department of agriculture investigated pesticide misuse, Spell said.

“One of the challenges we dealt with early on was pesticide misuse on the Gulf Coast where cotton poison was misused by people that weren’t licensed to spray homes,” he said.

The department was given expanded authority of its sales bureau to cover all types of agriculture-related crimes, including theft of livestock or equipment or damage from fire.

“Vandalism from setting hay barns on fire is not uncommon across the state,” Spell said. “Having expanded authority has helped tremendously.”

Low commodity prices and extremely dry weather have resulted in another poor year for Mississippi farmers, Spell said.

“Last year, extremely dry weather had more of an effect than this year,” he said. “This year, we’ve seen very low prices on all commodities straight across the board – corn, rice, cotton, soybeans. Meat cattle prices were a little bit below normal last year.”

In early summer, crop extension specialists predicted a bumper crop, Spell said.

“Then we hit a dry spell,” he said. “The corn crop didn’t suffer quite as much. Irrigated rice is OK, but rice does a lot of maturing in the last two to three weeks, and one of the things that causes a reduction in yield is hot, hot nights. We’ve seen real losses across the state in soybeans and cotton because of a second year with bad weather conditions coupled with extremely low prices.”

Adverse conditions will result in a decrease in the number of farmers in Mississippi, Spell said.

“When Congress start backs in session, we’re hoping the emergency farm relief bill of more than $7 billion will be passed,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point that people in the U.S. take inexpensive, abundant food for granted. Homemakers don’t can foods like they used to. A lot of people today don’t even buy a deep freeze. Anything they need can be purchased from the grocery store. Most people don’t realize that if we continue to lose farmers, the price will go up as a result of less supply. Right now, only 10

About Lynne W. Jeter

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