Details of how Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s new plan for economic development will address agriculture and forestry have not yet been revealed. But with agribusiness making up 25% to 30% of the state’s economy, what happens down on the farm and out in the forest will continue to have a major impact on economic development.
There has been a major effort to promote high-tech jobs in the state. But agribusiness doesn’t want to be left out.
“The governor has done a very good job of keeping this pretty tight to himself as far as what he wants to see done with agribusiness,” said Mike Pepper, director of governmental relations for the Mississippi Farm Bureau. “We realize there is a big push for high-tech industry, but agriculture provides 25% of the jobs in the state. So we can’t totally leave out the food and fiber sectors in the whole picture of things.”
Pepper believes it would make sense to concentrate on promoting value-added industries to make use of commodities such as cotton, poultry and timber. More value-added industry would not only help producers by creating more markets for ag products, but would also provide more jobs. Pepper would also like to see the governor’s plan address opening more markets to agriculture products both at home and abroad.
Environmental issues are also a concern in promoting agriculture. Regulations surrounding waste from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for hogs and other livestock have been hotly debated in the Mississippi Legislature in recent years. Pepper said in order for CAFO operations to be expanded, it is important that regulations be based on sound science and not scare tactics.
Research is another pressing need for agribusiness.
“The university system, Mississippi State and the agriculture experiment stations, have not been funded to the level needed in the past few years,” says Chris Sparkman, deputy commissioner, Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. “Definitely, we need some more dollars for research into agriculture. More research will lead to lower input costs and will also help provide solutions to environmental concerns such as the runoff of chemicals into the water.”
Research has led to a boll weevil program that is on the verge of eradicating the pest that causes major damage in cotton. Sparkman points to that as one example of research that is paying off by lowering input costs. Besides reducing pesticide costs, eradicating the pest will lower fuel and maintenance costs for applying the pesticides and field damage caused by tractors.
During the regular session of the Legislature, Musgrove had conversations with Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell in which the governor indicated he wanted agriculture tied into the overall economic development efforts of the state. The governor indicated he felt there were some areas of duplicated effort between the Department of Agriculture and Commerce and the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).
A memorandum of understanding is being considered between the ag department and DECD in order to get the most efficiency out of programs, “the biggest bang for the buck.”
Sparkman said that agriculture technology is rapidly changing, providing opportunities for increased production and improved profits.
“The technology has changed a lot in just the past five years,” Sparkman said. “We have genetically altered seeds to resist certain pests and control weeds. Production costs are being controlled by that. And some farmers are using GPS (global positioning systems) to manage fields to get the most efficient use of fertilizers. Agribusiness is changing, and it is going to continue to change at an even faster rate than in the past five to 10 years.
“GPS is an amazing technology. The satellite imagery is used to develop a grid pattern of the field. Soil is sampled and the information loaded into the computer. The satellite tracks the tractor across the field and gives it messages to release varying rates of fertilizer on the ground. This is a lot more environmentally-friendly because you don’t use more fertilizer than you need and have runoff to the water. It is also cheaper on input costs to farmers. There are companies developing software for this industry.”
Sparkman agreed with Pepper that the state needs to promote and be ready for opening markets in other countries. The potential for more trade with China could have major implications, and some observers believe it is only a matter of time before exports are allowed to Cuba.
“We are in an excellent position to do some marketing in Cuba,” he said.
Improvements in the Asian economy would also help Mississippi exports of cotton, food and timber products. Sparkman said it has been unfortunate that the ag economy has not experienced the recent flush years enjoyed by the general economy of the U.S. He believes that is primarily because of the decline in export markets.
The Department of Agriculture and Commerce would also like to see more loan funds available for agribusiness. Currently DECD has a $90-million revolving loan fund for agribusiness that has been primarily used to finance contract growers in the poultry industry.
“That fund could be expanded,” Sparkman said. “There is a lot of money in there, but a very small loss ratio. The loan fund could be expanded over into other areas outside of the poultry industry to finance small agribusinesses from the state level.”
There are few processing facilities for soybeans in the state. Soybean meal is used as in ingredient in feed for livestock and catfish.
Providing incentives to finance a cooperative or private business to open a soybean mill would be beneficial, Sparkman said.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.