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Peanut processor seeking state funds for plant expansion

ABERDEEN — Birdsong Corp. wants another $1 million from Mississippi to expand its peanut processing plant in Aberdeen.

“We want a grant and we want the state to participate,” general manager Gerald Garland told a House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday.

The Mississippi Development Authority, though, is cool to the idea. Kathy Gelston, MDA’s chief financial officer said that the proposed $2.2 million expansion offers no new jobs and that the company refused a loan offered by the authority. Earlier the state gave the company $1 million.

“We like them. They’re a good company,” she said. “We just don’t want to give them $1 million for no jobs.”

She said two other companies are considering building peanut processing plants in Mississippi and that the state doesn’t want to play favorites.

Birdsong, in a presentation to lawmakers yesterday, said it must expand before it can build a planned peanut-shelling plant in Delta, which would offer more jobs. The Suffolk, Va.-based, company opened the Monroe County location in 2008, after getting the $1 million state grant. Birdsong has five full-time employees and 30 seasonal workers at the location, called a buying point.

The company received the original grant and agreed to pay back part of the money if it closed within five years.

Garland said peanut production has to increase in Mississippi and Arkansas before a shelling plant will make economic sense. He said the company is setting up another buying point in Walnut Ridge, Ark., and hopes to open a third in either Coahoma or Tunica counties in 2013. Garland said Birdsong would build the shelling plant at the Delta location.

Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said that state has not made any agreement to subsidize Birdsong, but left open the possibility that Arkansas could.

Garland said Mississippi should give Birdsong the money even if it created no jobs now, because peanuts pay better than some other traditional crops, improving the economy of farming areas.

“Every time we meet, people want to talk about jobs, and we want to talk about cash turning over in the community,” he said.

The company expects Mississippi farmers to plant nearly 16,000 acres of peanuts this year, up from 3,500 acres in 2007. In 2011, Mississippi growers planted 1.85 million acres of soybeans, the state’s largest crop by acreage.

Gelston said MDA would be willing to discuss more help if Birdsong would commit to going ahead with its shelling plant. Garland said the problem with that is the company can’t go ahead until it’s sure enough farmers in the region will start growing peanuts.

Rep. David Gibbs, D-West Point, who is sponsoring the bill, said Birdsong has lived up to its pledges so far, and that the state should support the firm with the expectation that more jobs are coming.

“They need to get through this phase to get to the next one,” Gibbs said.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said he supports state aid for Birdsong, even if it’s not in the exact form Gibbs has proposed.

The Birdsong facility in Aberdeen is in Gibbs’ House district and Bryan’s Senate district.


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