Horticulture biz blooms in south Mississippi

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Published: April 17,2000

POPLARVILLE — An emerging crop in the agriculture segment is taking center stage, and it’s a bloom, er, boom, for south Mississippi.

Floriculture and environmental horticulture, consisting of greenhouse, turf grass and nursery-related crops, is the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture, increasing at a rate of $500 million in grower cash receipts annually. In 1996, with $10.9 billion in grower receipts, floriculture and environmental horticulture crops ranked as the seventh most important commodity group.

Representing more than 10% of total U.S. crop cash receipts, horticulture is the third largest value crop in the country, behind corn and soybeans. The University of Georgia ranked it as the second most important sector in U.S. agriculture, behind beef and beef products, in terms of economic output. Thanks in part to a federal grant that will fund horticultural research, south Mississippi is poised to play a big role.

“Horticulture is definitely a growing industry,” said Mississippi State University horticulturist Patricia Knight, who is based at the south Mississippi branch experiment station in Poplarville and recently received a federal grant to work jointly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Small Fruits Research Center to expand ornamental research in south Mississippi.

Not only is the U.S. the world’s largest producer of greenhouse and nursery crops, it is also the world’s largest market with consumer expenditures several times that of Japan, with trade in floricultural and environmental horticulture products gaining in importance.

“If you look across the board in the U.S., it’s probably the fastest growing agricultural commodity in front of cattle, hogs, and row crops,” she said. “It’s increasing in value in Mississippi. There’s no reason to see that change. Especially as the south part of the state becomes more urbanized, there will be more and more of a need for it.”

More than 40 certified nurseries are located in George County alone, home of Lucedale, which bills itself as the nursery capital of Mississippi.

“There’s a lot of debate about the economic impact horticulture has in the state and I’ve heard a lot of numbers thrown around, anywhere from $40 million to $150 million and growing,” Knight said.

Azaleas and hollies are the primary ornamentals grown in south Mississippi, with a hefty planting of crepe myrtles, junipers and magnolias. Horticulture also includes fresh-cut flowers and foliage, potted flowering and foliage plants, bedding plants, perennials, annuals and bulbs, cut Christmas trees, seed and other propagative materials.

Most certified nurseries in south Mississippi are family-based and are fairly small. Overall, it’s a mix, but most certified nurseries sell either primarily to mass market outlets, like Wal-Mart, or almost exclusively to landscapers, she said.

“A lot of small family-owned specialty nurseries might grow azaleas or something manageable for their family,” Knight said. “The biggest nursery in the state is between 50 and100 acres.”

Even though floriculture and environmental horticulture farms account for only 2% of all U.S. farms, it contributes 11% of all farm crop cash receipts. In 1996, a USDA graph shows Mississippi production over the $100-million mark.

Research funding will enable Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Stations (MAFES) and the USDA to help solve problems that have hindered expansion of the ornamental industry and to hire additional personnel, including an urban horticulturist to address post-production ornamental concerns, a floriculturist to support the greenhouse industry and a plant physiologist to apply basic research to everyday problems.

Plans are also on the drawing board for more sites and greenhouses to expand annual and perennial foliage research.

“By adding new personnel and additional facilities and labs, we can develop the horticulture program and expand our applied research to help nurseries within the state,” Knight said.

It’s difficult to say whether or not the horticulture industry in south Mississippi will ever rival Mobile’s, she said.

“Land prices in that area are so expensive now,” she said. “It’s becoming more lucrative for people to sell that land to commercial interests and move across the state line, where land is cheaper. At least that’s what the nurserymen around Lucedale are saying — that it’s more economically feasible to be in Mississippi than in Alabama. In Perry County, you can still get land for roughly $2,000 an acre.”

Available water, affordable land and a central location give Mississippi a competitive advantage, Knight said.

“Compared to other states, we’re just now emerging,” she said. “Our location will help with that. A lot of material is shipped to Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida. We’re centrally located to take advantage of this horticultural boom. The South and West are emerging. Economically, it’s a good thing for the state.”

Even though the consumption center of south Mississippi’s horticulture industry is on the rapidly growing Gulf Coast, it is unlikely that the production center would follow, Knight said.

“I don’t really see any reason for it to move to the Coast, simply for land prices,” she said. “All of us are technically based out of the Biloxi office for the coastal research and extension center. New positions that will be 100% research will be housed out of Biloxi or Poplarville. Technically, we’re not an extension component, but realistically, Mississippi State has a good partnership with the industry, and hopefully we’ll be able to continue to work together to solve the current and future problems that face the horticulture industry in general.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com, mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

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