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Spell guardedly optimistic about agriculture outlook


Lester Spell

Lester Spell

If farmers who saw catastrophic losses in 2009 receive timely aid in early 2010, Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell is optimistic about the upcoming year. If not…

“There is no definitive figure on just how many farmers we could lose if they don’t get some assistance,” Spell said. “I predict it will be a higher number than we have ever seen before.”

The 2009 growing season was the worst in at least a half-century, with farmers seeing roughly $444 million in losses, or nearly 28 percent of the crops total value, caused by torrential rains in the fall. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Small Business Administration has declared the entire state a disaster area, which offers assistance to producers, agriculture cooperatives and others. And, the Farm Bill offers disaster assistance, as well.

But, Spell says, that will not be enough to save many farms. The Mississippi Congressional delegation has introduced and/or co-sponsored disaster assistance legislation in both houses. The legislation would offer much-needed help as producers try to make plans for 2010.

That will be the critical element in 2010, Spell said. He is worried that farmers will be cut off from capital due to the losses in 2009. He said he has been encouraged by reports from farmers that say many lenders are treating 2009 as an aberration, and are looking at producers’ performance over the years when making lending decisions.

But, he added, “It is absolutely critical that our farmers have a good year this year.”

Spell, indeed, does see some promising indicators for the upcoming year. While fuel costs are forecast to tick up, other costs for such items as chemicals, seed and fertilizer are predicted to be stable in 2010.

One commodity that may see a bounce-back year is cotton. No longer king, the cotton industry has been in a state of decline over the last few years, leading some to doubt the industry’s long-term future. However, Spell said cotton planters have indicated that they are looking to plant more cotton in 2010, though the crop’s high input costs has Spell concerned that lenders may not find cotton a good bet.

Looking to diversify, Spell sees the potential for a continued increase in agri-tourism operations. He also sees a chance for increased vegetable production, and a general elevated demand for high-yield, high-quality food products.

Another potential bright spot is farmers markets. The number of markets are growing across the state and nation, and in late 2009 the Mississippi Farmers Market and the Greater Belhaven market conducted a successful merger, a deal that is to continue into 2010.

Concerning farmers markets and agri-tourism, Spell said, “I see them growing as more and more people are concerned about where their food comes from. They are much more health-conscious today. And, people like to talk to farmers.”

Spell said optimism is up for 2010, but added that farmers are by nature some of the most optimistic and resilient people. That coupled with what Spell sees as excellent leadership in Jackson and Washington, led the commissioner to say, “We have a lot to be thankful for here in Mississippi.”

Still, Spell is concerned that 2009 could have a tremendous negative impact on the 2010 planting season. And, since studies show that agriculture dollars turn over four or five times in Mississippi communities, all Mississippians should be watching and hopeful for a good 2010.

“Like oil, we cannot become dependent on imported food,” Spell said. “There’s a lot of things we can do without. Food is not one of them.”


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