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Agriculture remains cornerstone of state’s economy

While Mississippi’s economy is more diversified than it has ever been in the past, one thing has not changed: this is still an agriculture state. Agribusiness remains the leading industry, employing, Mississippians either directly or indirectly, almost one out of every three.

The $5.6-billion sector is composed of approximately 43,000 farms encompassing 11 million acres, with the average Mississippi farm composed of 256 acres.

After a string of tough years, Mississippi’s ag producers had a bounce-back year in 2003. Prices and weather were both good, and, catfish aside, most commodities returned a profit to producers.

“Generally speaking, everything is looking good this year,” said Patrick Sullivan, director of market development at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. “The good year we had in 2003 really fired some people up, and they’re still excited.”

He added that there is one factor that could be make-or-break in 2004 — the weather. “We had the driest March ever and the wettest June,” he said. “Conditions vary around the state, even within a field. I talked to one producer near Tupelo who said his low ground was flooded by the June rains, but his high ground is too dry. But if the weather cooperates, we should have another great year, possibly a record-setting one.”

Chickens and eggs are Mississippi’s top revenue producers. Approximately 769 million broilers, with an average weight of five pounds each, are produced annually. Demand and prices have been healthy of late, with a Mississippi dock price of 81.96¢ per pound as of June 25, 2004.
Approximately 1.6 billion eggs are produced annually in Mississippi. Grade A wholesale prices as of June 25 ranged from 44¢-48¢ per dozen for medium eggs to 70¢-73¢ per dozen for extra large eggs.

Of the state’s total land, 61% is devoted to commercial forests. According to the Mississippi Timber Price Report (March/April 2004), there was strong national demand for softwood lumber and structural panels, led by new home construction. The average price of standing pine sawtimber moved higher in March/April, with prices ranging from $378-$423 per thousand board feet.

Pine sawlogs continue their rise in popularity. In 1990, pine logs made up 47% of Mississippi’s total timber harvest value. Today, they make up 66% of the total.

The pulp/paperboard industry has been hurting the past three years, but optimism abounds. Production of pulp/paperboard, coated paper and newsprint is up this year compared to 2003. Average standing pine pulpwood prices ranged from $3-$7 per ton, while hardwood was bringing $3.50-$8.25 per ton.

Cotton may no longer be king, but it is still nobility. In 2003, the average yield was 925 pounds per acre. There were 1.09 million acres harvested, yielding 218 million bales.
The mid-summer Mississippi farm market price for cotton was $57.11 per pound.

Last year, 1.4 million acres of soybeans were harvested, yielding 39 bushels per acre. Mid-summer, soybeans were bringing $9.50 per bushel. And on August 20, 2004, the Chicago Board of Trade showed prices for soybeans, soybean oil and soybean meal were on the rise.

With improved prices, soybeans are getting a new look by producers. Catfish woes are helping fuel its popularity — a significant portion of former catfish pond acreage has been converted to soybean fields.

Between the labeling controversy with Vietnam, escalating feed costs and poor prices, catfish farmers are struggling. In 2003, the average feed price was $230 per ton, and Jim Steeby, Mississippi State University Extension Service aquaculture specialist believes feed should be at least $50 per ton higher than that this year. In May, it was bringing $300 per ton.

Most producers can show a profit if feed stays below $280 per ton and they get a minimum of 75¢ per pound. In January 2003, catfish were only fetching 52.9¢ per pound, but prices had rebounded to 75¢ per pound by May 2004.

Still, producers continue to leave their ponds. In 2001, Mississippi boasted 113,000 acres in catfish farming. In February 2004, that figure was down to 101,000 acres, most converting to row crops or timber.

Mississippi has approximately one million head of cattle, which includes 557,000 mature beef cows. In 2003, there were 21,000 cattle operations in the state.

In June 2004, steers were bringing a Mississippi farm market price ranging $126-$150 per 100 pounds, and heifers were bringing $120-$132. Slaughter cows were fetching $53-$58 per 100 pounds while slaughter bulls were at $53-$63. Pairs brought $650-$990 per pair.

Corn was bringing a mid-summer Mississippi farm market price of $2.79 per bushel, and the corn prices were on the increase in late August on the Chicago Board of Trade.
Last year, 530,000 acres of corn were harvested in Mississippi. The average yield was 135 bushels per acre.

In 2003, 234,000 acres of rice were harvested in the state. The average yield was 135 bushels per acre.
The mid-summer Mississippi farm market price for rice was $10.01 per hundredweight. The price was rising on the Chicago Board of Trade in late August.

A sometimes overlooked commodity, there were 750,000 acres of hay harvested in Mississippi in 2003, producing 1.88 million tons. The average 2003 yield was 2.5 tons per acre.

Horticulture got a shot in the arm recently with a new blueberry processing plant in Collins. The processing plant has allowed farmers to expand into new markets, such as Wal-Mart. The new Farmer’s Market being built in Jackson will also have a big impact on this segment of the industry.
According to the MDAC, horticulture is one of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture. The department estimates that there are 74 floriculture producers.

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

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