It is a common complaint heard from county supervisors — chicken trucks are tearing up their roads and bridges, outstripping the resources at hand to maintain them.
Last week, the poultry industry had a chance to face its accusers and offer its point of view, though it shied away from the finger pointing.
“We don’t need to get in a blame game here,” said Mark Leggett, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association who presented last week at the State Capitol to the Senate study group looking into the growing problem of the state’s crumbling roadways and bridges. “We don’t need to think blame. We need to think economics.”
Leggett, whose presentation included concerns of the agriculture community as a whole, did just that during his testimony, looking to quantify what farming and the poultry industry mean to the state’s economy, and showing what just one bad bridge can cost over the course of one year.
Leggett began by pointing out that agriculture represents nearly a quarter of the state’s total economy, and the sector is led by poultry. In 2012, poultry production in Mississippi rang in at $2.53 billion, more than double that of the second-largest commodity, soybeans. Some 758 broilers were raised on 1,478 farms and were served by 41 feed mills, hatcheries and processing plants.
“To move (chickens) we need roads and bridges that can handle the loads,” Leggett told the task force. “Mainly, county and state aid roads, but also state highways. If we can’t get it out of the field, from the forest or the poultry house, we don’t have the jobs in towns where the processing facilities are.
“We talk a lot about economic development in this building, and that often boils down to what it costs a company to do business in Mississippi. Moving agricultural commodities is an increasing cost.”
Using a map he obtained from Dr. Scott Samson, Extension professor at Mississippi State University, Leggett illustrated how suspect bridges surround the state’s poultry facilities. He explained that these facilities serve as a hub, with the farms representing the spokes, which puts a large volume of traffic on county roads that too often do not have the capacity.
“There can be from 50 to as many as 80 truck visits to an average four-house farm in the raising of one flock of chickens,” Leggett told the group.
Drilling that down farther, Leggett shared information he got from four of his members. Each one of these facilities is being impacted by a bridge that requires re-routing of its trucks.
According to Leggett’s figures, the vehicles of those four facilities combined, over the course of one year, are having to travel an extra 18,533 miles, requiring more than 4,250 additional gallons of diesel. Tops was a broiler farm in New Hebron that was traveling more than additional 8,000 miles annually to service growers due detouring around one bad bridge.
This is becoming a serious economic development problem for the state, he said. In poultry as in any industry, there is competition to land new facilities. With the escalating cost to get product to market, Mississippi is at risk of seeing the poultry industry decrease.
“Every detour in Mississippi makes Arkansas or Alabama look better,” Leggett told the group.
“Is this issue stopping commerce? — no. Is it becoming more and more costly? — yes,” Leggett told the Mississippi Business Journal. “If county supervisors think chicken trucks are tearing up the roads, then don’t support the industry. Let them die. But, then you lose the jobs and revenue. Again, I say let’s don’t think blame — let’s think economically.”
Leggett said he is encouraged by what he has heard from the Senate group last week. He participated in a ranking of possible scenarios, ranging from increasing infrastructure funding to doing nothing at all. At press time the PEER Committee was tabulating those results.
He said it appears to him that there will be a statewide fact-finding/public input period, perhaps starting in October, and information gathered will be brought back to Jackson and analyzed.
Leggett did add, however, that he was also concerned with how any funding would be used. That is yet to be determined.
“If we get funding, what are the priorities, and how will they be determined?” Leggett asked. “What will be the criteria be to determine which bridges get fixed first?
“I know this — it is getting more and more expensive every day.”