CLEVELAND — Agricultural concerns made the biggest buzz, but transportation, workforce training and economic development issues also made news when several thousand business leaders gathered in the Walter Sillers Coliseum at Delta State University in Cleveland in late May for the Delta Council’s annual meeting.
“Matters affecting the $2 billion a year Delta agricultural economy have been at the forefront of the Delta Council’s activities since last May,” said Delta Council board member Nolen Canon of Tunica County. The Delta Council, established in 1935, is an area economic development organization representing 18 Delta counties.
COMMODITY PRICE CRISIS?
Historically-low commodity prices for all major crops in the last two years have placed an enormous stress on Washington policies affecting agricultural trade, income stabilization, supply, and offtake, said Delta Council board member Don Linn of Indianola.
“A discount on crop insurance premiums was incorporated into the emergency legislation during the 1999 crop year, which allowed this program to become more functional as a part of the farm budget for southern crop production,” he said.
Delta Council vice president Al Rankins said U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss) shaping of the federal agricultural policy and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s (R-Miss) leadership position have played key roles in the development of emergency market loss assistance legislation for the two past crop seasons. Both positions will play important roles in current congressional talks about future farm policies.
“The economy of agriculture in rural America is far too fragile for drastic policy changes without careful study,” said Canon.
Linn said Congress has been asked to refrain from making wholesale changes in federal farm policy until a more stable economic climate exists in production agriculture “and until assurances are gained that we will not resort to a direction in farm policy which brings even less certainty to the near-term future of agriculture.”
Facing a third consecutive year of historically-low prices, discussions are already underway in Congress about emergency market loss assistance for the 2000 crop year, Canon said.
“Senator Cochran and his staff have begun to position the policy discussions so that the program crops of feed grains, rice and cotton obtain the market loss assistance equivalent of last year’s,” said Linn.
If projections are accurate, the implementation of the Caribbean Basin Trade Initiative could mean significant new agricultural export opportunities for major crops grown in the Mississippi Delta, said Rankins.
“Major Southern crops will receive preference in the trade policies adopted through the CBI agreement,” said Canon.
FROM THE LEGISLATURE
On the state level, the Legislature passed “prompt pay” legislation earlier this year, which would require licensure of agricultural commodities buyers, said Chip Morgan, Delta Council’s executive director.
“Prompt pay legislation licenses all buyers of agricultural commodities and sets up standards that if a certain buyer falls into a late payment pattern, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture has a method to step in, evaluate the financial situation and make sure there is enough security behind the purchase of the agricultural commodities,” said Morgan. “This would keep people from selling their crops — which is their only collateral — and going through a processing plant without the risk of not getting paid.”
A proposal that relates to the sale and purchase of planting seed was defeated in the 2000 Legislature but will be on next year’s agenda, Morgan said.
“Planting seed has become one of the top input cost items, whereas 10 years ago, planting seed for crop production was a negligible cost in the overall crop budget,” he said. “We’ve moved into biological engineering and genetically modified seeds, which costs a lot more. The seed trade has worked through farm organizations to update seed laws so they are more adaptive to these genetically modified planting seeds that we have today. It’s a big issue that will probably not be easy to address because there are a lot of sides to it and it’s a big money item in agriculture.”
Highway issues were discussed at the annual meeting, including policies aimed at locating an interstate crossing on the Mississippi River for the upcoming Interstate 69 project. Bolivar County leaders recently authorized funds for a Rosedale bridge crossing to advance the planning and design work for the I-69 bridge to be constructed in the vicinity of Benoit and Arkansas City, and four-laning contracts have been awarded on all segments of U.S. 61 and U.S. 82.
When the contract is awarded next year to link Silver City to Carter on U.S. 49, it will be the final project to bring a four-lane connection from the Delta to the state’s capital.
“Through a negotiated agreement with the White House, an additional $25 million will be allocated for advanced studies and design work for I-69 this year,” said Canon.
Lott has also pledged to make funds available to resume work on the replacement of the U.S. 82 bridge, which has been recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard as the most serious navigation hazard on the inland waterway system, Linn said.
Delta business leaders were cautiously optimistic about the proposed Delta Regional Commission.
“As a part of the White House efforts to enlist the views of Delta leaders from seven states and 240 counties, Delta Council has emphasized that there are serious needs that must be met if the Delta is to participate in the economic growth of the nation,” said Rankins. “However, we have cautioned that the merits of a new delivery system or new federal authority to administer funds for the Delta should be a secondary issue.”
Existing and accountable systems are already in place to deliver federal programs through junior colleges and universities for workforce training and public education teacher training, Canon said.
“The structure of the delivery system and the priority-setting for federal spending in any Delta initiative should include a prominent role for these existing and effective institutions which are already in place and accountable to local people and public officials,” he said.
BUSINESS AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Cochran established the Delta as a National Priority Area for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will accelerate and expand the partnership between the USDA and local sponsors aimed at enhanced water quality, wetlands restoration, water conservation, improved fisheries resources and improved farm conservation practices in the Delta.
“As a result of federal support for the National Warmwater Aquaculture Center (final funding was incorporated into the appropriations bill last month), the USDA has developed a new strain of catfish which possesses higher production and conversion characteristics, with an official release date in early 2001,” said Linn.
Flood control projects, which includes the Yazoo River Channel project that would reduce flooding for most of Washington County, the city of Greenville and 35 square miles of Bolivar County, the Sunflower River Maintenance in the Holly Bluff area, and the Mississippi River Levee, were discussed.
“The last remaining feature of Delta flood control is the location of a pumping plant in the South Delta,” said Rankins. “This project is designed to reduce flooding during those times when interior rainfall from 11 counties in the Mississippi Delt
a gradually converges on the South Delta at a time when the Mississippi
River high water stages will not let the Delta’s rainfall evacuate the region.”
BOARD RECOGNIZES ACHIEVEMENT