Lorman — The number of small farms in Mississippi and across the nation continues to decline. One institution whose goal is to make a difference in helping the small farmers who remain in business is the Mississippi Small Farm Development Center.
“Our basic mission is to deliver management and technical assistance to small farmers,” said Dr. Gregory Reed, associate director of the Mississippi Small Farm Development Center, which is located at Alcorn State University. “For example, we do a series of information seminars that cover issues plaguing small farmers, as well as exposing them to programs and services currently available to them which can be accessed through computers.”
On average, these are still difficult times for the small farmer. According to the Census of Agriculture, there are only about 42,167 small farms in Mississippi, including an estimated 5,153 farms owned by minority farmers.
“Those numbers have fallen drastically over the past decades,” Reed said. “We’re still losing them due to poor management, lack of resources and other relevant issues. Just as you are seeing mergers in banking, insurance and other industries, larger farms are absorbing small farms. Small farmers don’t have a legitimate crack at markets like food distributor companies and Wal-Mart.
“We’re trying to encourage more cooperative-type activities among farmers to get them to utilize their resources collectively, which would give them a stronger position to take advantage of larger markets. With Albertsons and other bigger chains, there are big concerns about quality and consistency in products. The only way you can guarantee the quality and consistency they need is to strengthen your infrastructure and business practices.”
An example of a cooperative strategy would be instead of planting 50 acres of a crop, plant a third of that amount and cooperate with other farmers on the remaining acreage.
“You take a third of the risk, and spread it among the entire group, and then all go out for same goal,” Reed said. “You have taken a fraction of the risk as compared to going out there and taking 100% of the risk. If you are all growing sweet potatoes, you might as well grow it as one unit. Instead of everyone with one tractor, you have one tractor for the group.”
Minority farmers in Mississippi and elsewhere in the country sued the government for lack of equal access to U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for loans and other services. The farmers won the class action lawsuit. But Reed said not all black farmers in the state were in on the lawsuit, and many of those who did receive settlements have ended up in as much debt or worse than before receiving the settlement.
“To me, it didn’t make a big difference,” Reed said. “The major problem still with most minority farmers is lack of general knowledge of farm management and management of their dollars.”
Some farmers in Mississippi have gone after alternative crops such as sweet potatoes, and are finding that profitable.
“They went from a couple hundred acres to several thousands in sweet potato production,” Reed said. “They took advantage of selling to school lunch programs, and a lot of wholesale marketing has been established. That particular program has worked very well.”
Other promising alternative ag products that work well on small acreages include the meat goat, natural products and vegetables. Reed said okra, greens, peas and beans are some of the more popular vegetables being grown and sold in Mississippi.
“A lot of casino markets are looking for fresh vegetables,” Reed said. “Their buyers have made some promises to purchase products from minority farmers. There are some farmers selling to casinos directly. We are trying to increase that volume by working collectively to improve this market.”
Back in 1997, there was a big push for a meat goat industry in Mississippi. Some farmers made some major investments in getting breeding stock to establish a meat goat industry, and the state made a major investment to develop a goat purchasing and processing facility. While that effort fizzled out around 2000, there is currently a resurgence of interest.
“The push is on,” Reed said. “There is a big demand. We have gone on to work on international markets. We got funding two years ago for a project in the Jamaica market. They have a demand that we can’t even meet at this particular time.”
One of the Small Farm Center’s largest and more successful efforts is its natural products program. Working in cooperation with the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy’s National Center for Natural Products Research, Alcorn is playing a role in growing a variety of natural products and herbs. The Mississippi Natural Products Association has been formed to take those products to developmental stage.
“They have developed a line of products including oils, sprays, bath beads and insect repellent, all made of natural products,” Reed said. “That program is going really well. The Mississippi Natural Products Association has received some state support. I think there is going to be more and more opportunity for their products as people are becoming more sensitive about what they are putting in their bodies.”
Another particularly important program administered through the Mississippi Small Farm Center is its loan program.
“We provide capital for small farmers who otherwise would be unable to obtain credit from traditional financial institutions,” Reed said. “To my knowledge, we are the only school in the country that has such a program. To date we have helped about 300 farmers with a $2.5-million revolving fund for loans.”
Ocean Springs-based freelance journalist Becky Gillette writers regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.