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Challenges run deeper than industrial development projects

Madison County development shrinks farmland

CANTON — The landscape of Madison County is changing — rapidly. Along Interstate 55 just south of Canton to the city limits, bulldozers and work crews are working around the clock on the $930-million Nissan North America assembly plant that will produce 250,000 vehicles annually and employ up to 4,000 workers. And that’s not counting Nissan’s suppliers, which are expected to employ thousands more. Seemingly overnight, the county is being transformed into a manufacturing and industrial center.

However, progress has its price. There is one important sector of the county’s economy that is not getting direct benefit from the automaker’s arrival — the county’s farming community.

“There’s no doubt about it — it’s a 100% sure thing,” said Otis Davis, Madison County coordinator with the Mississippi State Extension Service, when asked if Nissan would impact the area’s farming community. “The land that they’re building the plant on was 90% farmland, and that doesn’t include acreage Nissan’s suppliers may need.”

Staying on the farm

Using the latest numbers available (1997), Madison County had 465 farms encompassing 182,095 acres. The estimated market value of the land and buildings per farm was $512,795.

Most of those numbers are down significantly from a decade before. In 1987, the county had 502 farms spanning 216,946 acres. However, the estimated market value of the land and buildings per farm was only $374,153.

The market value of agricultural products sold in the county in 1997 was $24.19 million, up from 1987 ($23.3 million) but down from 1992 ($26.0 million). Corn was the most abundant crop in 1997 yielding 689,266 bushels. It was trailed by soybeans and poultry.

It’s not Nissan’s fault

Obviously, 1997 was well before Nissan announced its intentions to build in Madison County. Thus, Madison County’s agricultural woes should not be laid at Nissan’s feet, and the county’s farming community is the first to point that out.

“Nissan is not the problem, though it is taking a large portion of the available farmland,” Davis said. “Ag prices across the board are down while costs have gone up. When comparing farm operations in Madison County to the rest of the nation, our farms are small. And small farms are the first to feel the crunch.

“The situation in agriculture is not all about Nissan. The challenge is in the low commodity prices and high costs.”

Many cited a bigger impact on the county’s availability of farmland.

“For years now, we’ve seen more and more homes going up as people move out of Jackson into the countryside,” said Clarence Pierce, manager of Madison County Equipment Inc., which is a John Deere dealership.

“Available farmland is shrinking, but it has been for years.”

Mo Branch, manager of the Madison County Co-op agreed, and added that he understood why many farmers were selling out.

“They’re certainly not making any money farming,” Branch said. “They’re being offered thousands per acre. I don’t blame them. I wish I had 1,000 acres or so to sell.”

Getting a pretty penny for unprofitable farmland seems like a good thing. But Dudley Bozeman of Bozeman Farms in Flora said there is a draw back.

“Most of these farms are debt-ridden, so you have to take the debt out of what you get for the land,” Bozeman said. “And then there’s capital gains tax and other things. When you add it all up, you don’t end up with much.”

Bozeman has been farming in Madison County since 1961. The family-run Bozeman Farms raises cotton, corn, cattle and timber. He said the only commodity that is profitable right now is cattle, and “it’s not as good as it looks.” However, he was quick to add that he felt Nissan was a definite plus for the county.

“It means growth for the county, and growth is good,” he said. “One positive is that the four-laning of Highway 22 from I-55 to I-20 will probably get sped up due to Nissan. That is going to be tremendous for the county.”

Pierce said, “The area’s definitely changed forever, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As you can see, we’re already carrying products for the non-farmer, such as tractors that are 40 horsepower or lower. We’ll simply go after the non-farmer, and we’ll certainly have more of those type customers. We’re here providing a service that we believe is vital to the community. We’re not going anywhere. And I’m just as excited about Nissan coming as the next guy.”

Branch echoed Pierce’s words.

“We’ll carry more products for the homeowner. Farming is down, but homebuilding is up. Farming in Madison County is not dead, it’s just not as large as it was. And it has little or nothing to do with Nissan. I think Nissan is a great thing. We’ll all be better because of it.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.


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