Mike Pepper, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, grew up working on two family farms in Simpson County, his father’s and stepfather’s.
I guess you can say I couldn’t escape it, and like most farms came work, mostly hard work,” he said.
Pepper, who blended his interest of politics with his farming savvy, earned an agribusiness degree at Mississippi State University before heading to Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Services Division.
“One of the highlights of being in that atmosphere was being able to visit periodically with a former secretary of agriculture on staff and a former undersecretary in the agriculture department who served under several different administrations,” he said.
After earning a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Purdue University, known for its strong public policy program, Pepper directed lobbying activities for the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation for nearly eight years before taking the helm of the statewide association that represents the largest revenue-producing agricultural commodity in Mississippi.
“I am blessed to have a supportive family that allows me to follow my dreams as well as my weekend farming habit,” said Pepper, who moved to Madison eight years ago and retains a farm in Simpson County. “I have just added acres this past winter to bring the total to a 51-acre commercially picked blueberry farm located outside Magee.”
During the late 1920s, the State Poultry Federation served the poultry industry in Mississippi. During the Depression era, the Mississippi Hatchery Association and the Mississippi Poultry Federation combined to form the Mississippi Poultry Producers Association (MPPA), which eventually developed into the present Mississippi Poultry Association (MPA).
Of the $5.35-billion annual value of agricultural commodities in Mississippi, poultry represents $1.8 billion. Cal-Maine, an MPA member, is the nation’s number one egg producer. Mississippi is the fourth largest in broiler production.
The Mississippi Business Journal asked Pepper about challenges facing industry members, opportunities for value-added products and other important issues in the agricultural sector.
Mississippi Business Journal: Tell us about the impact the poultry industry has on the economy of Mississippi.
Mike Pepper: The poultry industry serves a great purpose in this state. Not every county can have the positive change such as a Nissan can bring. The poultry industry serves areas of the state that are rural and often high in unemployed, moderately skilled workers. The poultry industry has played a large part in farmers being able to remain on land that perhaps has been handed down for generations. It has allowed these same producers to have the pride of having their own business.
The association plays a part in anything that has to do with the poultry industry. That’s a wide range. From the producers who grow the chickens, to our suppliers who supply everything from the raw materials to lending the money, to our allied membership encompassing equipment makers, to the integrators who face worldwide politics to ultimately sell our finished product. Everyone in our membership carries significant risk.
The poultry industry has solidly ranked ahead of all other agricultural industries in the state. More importantly though, is the multiplier effect that dollars earned and so-called “turned over in the community” mean for our rural areas. This statistic states a dollar is turned over about seven times in these areas. We hear a lot about the growing populations in particular areas of Mississippi, but people need to understand that Mississippi is still a very rural state. Rural areas depend on these dollars and we are proud to represent all the facets that make up this economic force
MBJ: What issues are of concern to both the producers and processors in the state?
MP: Probably one of the largest is the environmental threat placed on our industry each day. I just got back from Washington, D.C., from speaking to our congressional delegation on the importance of environmental regulations and the importance of using sound scientific data when being faced with decisions. We are lucky that Mississippi’s delegation generally has a positive response to our association’s concerns. We have learned, and through my other experiences working in other agricultural commodities, that if laws and regulations cause the United States to stop producing products, there is a 99% chance that commodity will be grown somewhere else only to become our main competition. The environmental concerns come full circle because not only are the other countries growing the commodity, they are most of the time doing it with fewer environmental regulations.
Diseases are a major concern for our members. Two different arenas come to mind. Exotic diseases are ones not common or generally found in the United States but could stand to wipe out whole farms to the whole growing region. Others would be common diseases that generally can be treated with added cost and threats of marketability. Animal welfare is an increasingly discussed topic. Our members have made various changes from the producers to safer handling equipment to the large awareness of the integrators.
MBJ: What steps can the MPA take to further the poultry industry’s development?
MP: We’re not a mature industry. We can take our product and add value several ways through further processing, for example, by adding marinade, breading or anything to make the item more consumer-friendly and accessible to cook. Our current processors or new companies could do this.
The poultry houses being built today are different than the ones being built just a couple years ago. The equipment our allied members sell is different and ever changing. As we speak, neat things are being done to help producers operate more efficiently due to rising energy cost. Innovative methods of bulk storage of petroleum to producers forming buying cooperatives are taking place. Our integrators continue to spend large amounts of capital in expanding operations for a growing demand for poultry.
MBJ: What is the business climate like for our poultry industry right now?
MP: The business climate looks good. I have my fingers crossed. The top two publicly-traded companies in Mississippi are our members. It is a tremendous opportunity to be associated with that kind of company. There still is a demand and need for a high protein product that poultry is associated with, and we are fortunate due to a record grain harvest that grain prices, with its relation to our feed costs, have decreased.
MBJ: What’s on the horizon for future trade or cooperative agreements involving the state’s producers and processors?
MP: I realize that building and maintaining a strong association starts with a well informed, involved and caring membership, and from the indications from traveling the state visiting membership during this short time, we have that.
From previous experience, sometimes it takes time to build a staff with these goals in mind. The Poultry Association already has these hardworking and dedicated individuals in place and capable of meeting the challenges and concerns before us.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.