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Record-setting year in 2004 for agriculture commodities

It would seem that there is nowhere for Mississippi’s agriculture industry to go but down in 2005. After all, the value of state-produced commodities in 2004 hit an all-time high last year, ringing in at $5.5 billion.

However, this year is shaping up to be every bit as good as 2004, according to Patrick Sullivan, director of market development at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. In fact, Sullivan feels Mississippi’s farmers have an excellent opportunity to surpass 2004’s historical numbers.

“From an overall standpoint, everything is looking good in 2005,” Sullivan said. “Of course, that doesn’t mean that every single farmer or every single commodity is doing well. Agriculture is an extremely variable business. But 2003 was a good year, 2004 was a record year, and 2005 has the potential to surpass last year.”

Sullivan pointed out that not only are commodity prices generally good across the board, but several commodities that have not traditionally been seen as top money-generators in Mississippi, such as sweet potatoes, sweet corn and blueberries, are drawing producers and customers alike.

“Last year, Mississippi was the second-largest sweet potato producer in the nation, and it is on the rise. It’s a fresh food product that is much in demand,” Sullivan said. “A group of five farmers in Sunflower County are raising sweet corn. Like sweet potatoes, it is labor intensive, but it is another fresh food product that is in demand and is drawing a premium price.”

Perhaps the fastest-rising star, however, is blueberries.

“There has been new processing and storage infrastructure added in Mississippi for blueberries,” Sullivan said. “Over the last two years, Mississippi’s blueberry production has more than doubled. Last year, Mississippi ranked seventh in the nation in blueberry production, and we’re expecting to see that jump higher this year.”

According to John Braswell, horticulture specialist with the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center in Poplarville, Mississippi’s blueberry crop stood at 5.3 million pounds in 2004. “I would say we’ll probably harvest about six million pounds this year,” he said.

Of course, weather is the one variable that cannot be controlled and has a large say in what kind of harvest and commodity prices will be seen. Rains from tropical systems and drought have been the bugaboo of Mississippi farmers over recent years. But if farmers can get in and out of their fields, 2005 could be a year to remember in Mississippi agriculture.

Counting (on) the chickens

Poultry/eggs were again number one in Mississippi in 2004, and it was a record year for the industry. For the first-time ever, poultry/eggs hit the $2-billion mark in the state, and worldwide demand continues to grow while feed prices remain reasonable. (In 2004, poultry/eggs fetched $1.59 billion.)

Mississippi produces approximately 790 million broilers annually, with an average weight of five pounds each. Some 1.6 billion eggs are produced annually in the Magnolia State.

Trees stand tall

Second-ranked forestry continues to be huge in Mississippi, and the industry brought in $1.11 billion in 2004, up from the $1.03 billion recorded in 2003. Forestry was the leading agricultural crop in nearly half of Mississippi’s counties (40 out of 82 counties), and ranked only behind poultry/eggs for revenue generated.

Of Mississippi’s total land, 61% is devoted to commercial forests.

Cotton still royalty

Cotton, third on the top commodities list, may no longer be king, but the state’s crop still brings a princely sum. In 2004, cotton production hit an all-time high, and the average yield was 1,000 pounds of cotton per acre, compared to 2003’s 925 pounds per acre. In total, there were 1.09 million acres of cotton harvested in the state in 2004, producing 2.27 million bales, compared to 2.18 million bales in 2003.

Unfortunately, cotton did not command strong prices last year. The 2004 cotton crop was valued at $598 million, well down from 2003’s $780 million.

Soybeans grow high

Soybeans continues their resurgence, totaling $334 million in 2004 and ranking the commodity fourth. In 2003, Mississippi’s soybean crop was valued at only $263 million.

In 2004, soybean acreage was up compared to 2003 (1.63 million acres to 1.4 million acres), while yield was 39 bushels per acre both years.

Catfish swimming again

Perhaps the top feel-good story among Mississippi commodities is catfish, which ranks fifth on the list. After several years of contending with such challenges as high feed costs and labeling squabbles with foreign competitors, catfish brought in $278 million in 2004, up from the $255 million reported in 2003. Catfish prices were 75¢ per pound in 2004, a significant rise from the 52.9¢ per pound seen in January 2003.

Catfish acreage is also rebounding. In 2004, there were approximately 430 catfish operations encompassing 103,000 water acres. (In February 2004, acreage had shrank to 101,000 acres.) There are 13 catfish-processing facilities in the state, and Mississippi continues to lead the U.S. in catfish production.

Livestock getting fat

Number six on the list is cattle and calves, which commanded $215 million in 2004. (In 2003, Mississippi’s livestock was valued at $194 million.) Livestock prices are strong, and they are expected to remain that way for the next 24-36 months.

Mississippi has approximately one million head of cattle, which includes 541,000 mature beef cows. In 2004, there were 21,000 cattle operations statewide, a number unchanged from 2003.

Corn popping up

Corn, number seven on the list, was a mixed bag in 2004. The 2004 yield of 136 bushels per acre represented a jump up from 2003’s 135 bushels per acre.

But the number of acres was down in 2004, standing at 440,000 acres as opposed to 530,000 acres in 2003. And the crop value was $120 million in 2004, well down from $145 million in 2003.

Rice looking healthy

The number of acres of rice harvested in 2004 was 233,000, down slightly from the 234,000 acres harvested in 2003. But eighth-ranked rice saw a solid average yield of 6,900 pounds per acre.

The best news, however, was the crop’s value. In 2004, the crop brought in $103 million, far above 2003’s value of $78 million.

Making hay

Sometimes overlooked, hay is big business in Mississippi, ranking ninth on the list. The 2004 crop was valued at $84 million, compared to 2003 when the harvest brought $78 million.

In 2004, 720,000 acres of hay were harvested, well off 2003’s acreage of 750,000. But the acres that were harvested in 2004 produced 2.08 million tons, compared to 1.88 million tons in 2003. The average yield per acre was 2.9 tons, a sharp increase from 2003’s yield of 2.5 tons per acre.

Horticulture still fastest-growing

For several years now, number 10 horticulture has been the fastest-growing commodity in Mississippi, and the momentum continues to build. The 2004 crop rung in at $75 million, up slightly from 2003’s value of $74 million.

There are approximately 74 floriculture producers in Mississippi, the same as in 2003, but that number is expected to grow on the strength of the blossoming blueberry industry alone.

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

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