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Agriculture remains Magnolia State’s number-one industry

Times may be hard on the farm, but approximately a quarter of Mississippi’s workforce heads out to the field, barn, orchard or ponds each day to earn a living. Casinos, manufacturing and other industries are certainly big business, but none can compete with the agriculture community.

According to the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC), there are approximately 42,000 farms in the state, encompassing a total of 11 million acres. (The average size farm is 262 acres.).

Job growth is expected in the farming community. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES), from 2004-2014, projects farmworkers (farm and ranch animals) will see the largest employment growth at 14%. Farmworkers and laborers (crop, nursery and greenhouse) run a close second at 12.8%, followed by agriculture workers (all others) at 11.1%.

Overall, the MDES projects all farming, fishing and forestry occupations will grow 5.7% from 2004-2014.

A lot of ‘cabbage’

Agriculture is worth approximately $6.4 billion, making it Mississippi’s number one industry, the MDAC says. Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell Jr. says the industry “quietly” is helping keep the U.S. out of very deep trade deficits, and it is critical that Mississippians and all Americans understand the industry’s importance to the national economy..

“We have to return profitability to production agriculture in order to sustain it for the long haul,” Spell says. “Increasing agricultural exports can help and are important. Had it not been for our trade surplus in food, our overall trade deficit would be $15 billion deeper in the red.

“But with the rapid spread of technology and strong trading competition, we cannot simply trade our way to better times in agriculture. We must do more. We need to take the offensive as Americans so that our food supply does not parallel the slippery slope of the supply and price of fossil fuels, a large part of which now comes from foreign countries. Keeping jobs is the name of the game, and today one of every four jobs in Mississippi is related to agriculture.”

According to MDES’ data, the average hourly wage for all farming, fishing and forestry occupations in $13.25, and the average annual salary is $27,570. Experienced supervisors/managers earn on average $52,070 per year, the highest money-earners, followed by agricultural inspectors ($43,360).

Pecking order

Poultry/eggs rule the roost in the state’s agriculture industry. This segment rings in at $2.33 billion, more than double second-place forestry ($1.11 billion). There were approximately 850 million broilers produced in 2007.

However, rising costs are heavily impacting Mississippi’s poultry industry. Laurel-based Sanderson Farms Inc., during the second fiscal quarter, saw net sales of $433.9 million, compared with $360.5 million for the same period a year ago. However, net income was $6.2 million, compared with net income of $26.9 million for the second quarter of fiscal 2007.

Joe F. Sanderson Jr., chairman and CEO of Sanderson Farms, said, “While we remain confident that the fundamental rules of supply and demand will work to maintain industry profitability over the long term, we also note that current conditions are creating short-term fluctuations in markets and profitability.”

Egg producer Cal-Maine Foods Inc. in Jackson had struggled with profitability until this year. Cal-Maine, during its first quarter, reported net income of $18 million, compared with a net loss of $5.4 million for the year-earlier period.

Fred Adams Jr., chairman and CEO of Cal-Maine, said, “Our sales volumes and overall profitability were strong for the first quarter of fiscal 2008. We benefited from excellent egg prices during a quarter that is seasonally weak.”

Craig Coufal, MSU extension poultry specialist, said, “Egg producers are faced with the same high production costs as broiler producers, but they are also more profitable at this time. The difference is that egg supply has not surpassed demand as much as chicken meat has.”

Coufal added that the same pressures — rising fuel and feed costs — are affecting the cattle industry (Mississippi’s seventh-largest industry ($191 million) just as they are poultry and dairy. And, relief is not in sight.

“Several things are going to have to change before prices come down, but there is no indication that they will,” Coufal said.

Mississippi’s top 10 agriculture segments are: poultry/eggs; forestry; soybeans; corn ($438 million); cotton ($434 million); catfish; cattle; rice ($144 million); hay ($102 million); and, horticulture ($100 million).

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

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