Eight years chairing the Mississippi Senate Agriculture Committee led Cindy Hyde-Smith to conclude there’s a lot of gold to be mined down on the farm.
The state just needs to more vigorously dig for it, she decided after a dozen years in the Senate and a lifetime working in agriculture.
As the state’s newly elected commissioner of agriculture and commerce, Hyde-Smith is now positioned as a high-profile advocate for increased leveraging of agricultural assets that inject nearly $7 billion into Mississippi’s economy annually.
She will tell you that “commerce” is, after all, part of her title as commissioner. And there’s a lot to work with here, she says.
First, there’s the good fortune of being close to the Equator — but not too close — and getting 55 inches of rainfall a year. That same geographic advantage provides mild winters and longer growing and grazing seasons, Hyde-Smith notes.
Further, it has made Mississippi a mecca of sorts for agricultural research, she says. So much so that the public and private research facilities at Stoneville are said to give the tiny community near Greenville a higher population of agricultural doctorates than anywhere in the world.
Little noticed perhaps is that Magnolia State commodity exports have become a $1 billion a year economic generator, having grown in volume by 20 percent since 2007, according to Hyde-Smith.
Alas, “agriculture is what we do well,” she says. “You’ve got to chase the rabbit you can catch.”
Sharper Ag-Value and Added Focus
“I have a meeting set up” with Christensen, Hyde-Smith said in an interview last Monday.
As the state’s chief commerce official for agriculture, she thinks it is critical that a bridge be built between her department and the MDA. She hopes to lay the groundwork for that in her meeting with Christensen, a former newspaper reporter and Hattiesburg economic development professional whom Gov. Phil Bryant hired away from his post as head of the Gainesville (Fla.) Area Chamber of Commerce.
Hyde-Smith said she will urge Christensen to give agriculture a priority ranking for economic development.
What she wants, Hyde-Smith said, is someone added to the ranks who specializes in agricultural-related economic development and puts a full-time focus on it. “I want someone over there whose job is dedicated to agriculture and developing jobs in agriculture.
“They have always felt like one size fits all,” she said of MDA professional staff assigned to financing, site selection and other aspects of economic development and business recruitment-retention.
“Agriculture is a different character,” Hyde-Smith said.
She envisions an emphasis on creating more value-added elements for the state’s agriculture sector, though she acknowledges the MDA “has done a fantastic” job leveraging the state’s timber, grass and soybean resources with the recruitment of such cutting-edge bio-tech operations as KiOR, Elevance Renewable Sciences and Virdia.
What she does not want overlooked, Hyde-Smith said, is the opportunity to secure more traditional value-added operations such as berry packaging and canning operations.
“I just think we need to concentrate more there,” she said. “I want the concentration of going out and knocking on doors of industries we know would flourish in this state.
“I just don’t think our focus has been there. I think it would be money well spent and time well spent.”
Such an effort would indeed involve time, says Travis Satterfield, a rice farmer and former president of the Delta Council, the region’s economic development entity.
Delta rice growers worked long and hard to open a bulk rice mill in Greenville, Satterfield said. “It’s easily said but not easily done.”
The opportunity to match the kind of vertical-integration that Mississippi’s poultry industry has achieved is something Delta farmers “talk about all the time,” he said.
But first, a market must be developed, Satterfield noted. “It’s tough competition. A lot of the markets are already set. It’s hard to break into those kind of markets with any significant volume.”
Bill Martin, director of the Franklin Furniture Institute at Mississippi State University, said he thinks the MDA has notched substantial success bringing valued-added operations to the state’s timber industry. “The MDA has been an integral part of bringing in new business and expanding new business,” he said in an interview last Tuesday. “They have been a great partner with the industry, period.”
The statewide economic development agency has been pro-active in helping with expansions, providing low-interest loans to timber-related companies and assisting localities with recruiting and retaining businesses that work in timber, Martin noted.
On workforce development, the MDA assists local community colleges in developing training programs for new and existing timber-related businesses and has helped to link Mississippi State University with the resources it needs in supporting the businesses, according to Martin.
Recently, the Franklin Institute and MDA worked together to acquaint a California forestry products company with Mississippi’s assets. “They set up the meetings, the site visits and gave briefings on what we could offer,” Martin said.
More recently, the MDA brought in a delegation of Mexican business people who were looking to buy forest products, he said. “We made a presentation.”
Targeted growth sectors
Christensen, the new MDA chief, is not granting media interviews for the time being.
Speaking on his behalf, spokespeople for the agency say the MDA’s prime economic development targets are influenced by what the governor wants along with a three-pronged test: Will the industry provide a substantial number of jobs? Will the jobs be well paying? Will the jobs have longevity?
“Agriculture in and of itself is not a targeted industry” — at least not in the same way as medical science and the aerospace sector,” said Sally Williams, MDA spokeswoman. The latter two generate “more jobs and higher pay.”
Hyde-Smith says the MDA’s budget for agricultural economic development should be somewhat proportionate to the 30 percent of the state’s economy it represents.
However, the way agriculture “bleeds into other industries” would make that an extreme challenge, MDA spokesman Dan Turner said.
Agriculture has aspects of manufacturing, bio-fuels, food-processing, energy and the like, Turner noted. This makes it “hard to pigeonhole into one thing and one thing only.”
Williams emphasized that traditional users of Mississippi’s natural resources such as the furniture industry “have been important and will continue to be important.”
Going forward, Williams said, the MDA looks to leverage Mississippi’s assets to foster cutting-edge operations in bio-fuels and other agriculture-related sciences while also “providing traditional opportunities for the businesses that are here. And that includes farmers.”
Williams and Turner noted that under Gov. Haley Barbour’s direction, the MDA emphasized advanced industries and energy-related jobs. Under Gov. Bryant, the emphasis is shaping up to be on the medical industry, they say.
That said, it could be too early to predict fully where Bryant’s priorities rest.
In a late May address at the annual meeting of the Delta Council, Bryant acknowledged the $1.5 billion annual economic contribution of the Delta’s agri-business. That contribution is too often overlooked, said Bryant, a native of the Delta community of Moorehead.
“That $1.5 billion employs 55,000 people. That’s 55 Toyota plants,” added the governor, referring to the much-touted economic contribution of the new Toyota car plant in Blue Springs.