By BECKY GILLETTE
When talking about “green” industries, it doesn’t get greener than operations like Salad Days in Flora, a hydroponic farm that is used to grow pesticide-free produce including lettuce and several varieties of tomatoes.
The farm operated by Jamie Redmond and Leigh Bailey has a number of environmental benefits: Water usage is minimal making this method easily sustainable. The sterile, soil-free growing process greatly reduces the risk of pathogens and soil-borne diseases. Eliminating manure as a fertilizer cuts the risk of food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli and salmonella, from consuming fresh vegetables.
“Our specially designed re-circulating hydroponic methods save land, conserve water, eliminate agricultural runoff and chemical pesticides, and offer the benefits of efficient, high-yield, local, and year-round food production,” Bailey said. “Salad Days can produce the equivalent of approximately 5-6 acres of field grown produce in our 18,000-square-foot controlled environment greenhouse. This keeps our land use requirements at a minimum.”
Another advantage of greenhouse grown produce is it is much less susceptible to pests and disease. But, when the need arises, Salad Days uses beneficial insects, like ladybugs and lacewings, to combat the harmful ones instead of using harsh chemical pesticides.
“Our tomatoes are pollinated by our resident bumble bees,” Bailey said.
A look at the customers listed on the farm’s website, www.saladdaysproduce.com, show that this is a very popular option. Bailey said people really like buying fresh food produced locally that has optimum taste and nutrition.
“Our proximity to our customers ensures that our produce does not spend days on a truck in transit, but instead arrives at its peak of freshness,” Bailey said.
While farms like Salad Days don’t have any trouble finding customers, the number of greenhouse growers in Mississippi is in decline, said Dr. Rick Snyder, vegetable specialist, Mississippi State University Extension Service.
“There is not a problem finding a market for greenhouse grown tomatoes in Mississippi,” Snyder said. “In greenhouse tomato production, the industry peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s. We had about 160 growers in Mississippi. Since the early 2000s, it has gradually declined and very few new operators are going into it. People are exiting the business almost always from age because the market is excellent.”
Greenhouse production is just one part of the green industry picture in Mississippi. Horticultural crops range from fruits and vegetables to tree nuts, nursery crops, and floriculture, said Dr. Alba J. Collart, assistant professor and Extension economist for the MSU Department of Ag Economics.
“The recently released 2017 Census of Agriculture estimated that the gross market value of horticultural crops sold in Mississippi in 2017 was $175.10 million, an increase of about 3.73 percent over the estimated $168.81 million reported in the 2012 Census of Agriculture,” Collart said. “The latest 2014 Census of Horticultural Specialties, which covered all operations from which $10,000 or more of horticultural products were produced and sold during 2014, reported that 154 nursery, greenhouse, and other horticultural operations hired 1,115 workers in Mississippi that year.”
However, she said the number of jobs provided by the horticulture industry in Mississippi is likely much larger since this census excluded mushroom growing and operations that grow fruits and vegetables and grass seeds in the open. A recent MSU Extension publication estimated that five horticultural products alone (blueberries, honey, pecans, sweet potatoes, and watermelons) supported 1,929 jobs in Mississippi in 2016.
Blueberries are mostly produced in the south part of the state, particularly in the southeast. Watermelon production is centered in George, Greene, and Smith counties, also in the south part of the state. Sweet potato production is centered in North Mississippi where Calhoun and Chickasaw counties are located. Pecan production can be found in the Delta and south Mississippi.
“Consumption of blueberries has grown over the past decade, with most of the growth stemming from increased use of fresh blueberries,” Collart said. “In a study conducted with my colleagues, we found that consumption of both fresh and frozen blueberries increased from about 0.56 pounds per person in 2004 to 1.37 pounds per person in 2013, with fresh consumption increasing by 157 percent and frozen consumption increasing by 120 percent over this period.”
Per-capita consumption of fresh sweet potatoes has also increased from 4.2 pounds in 2000 to 8 pounds in 2017.
“Though the sweet potato market experiences marked seasonal peaks during October and November each year, the industry has developed successful value-added offerings over time that have positioned the crop as a healthy choice to be consumed throughout the year instead of during special holiday occasions only,” Collart said.
Collart said while they are seeing a decrease in the number of Mississippi farms producing and selling edible agricultural products directly to consumers via outlets such as farmers markets and online marketplaces, they are seeing a significant increase in the value of food sold. The 2017 Census of Agriculture estimated that 1,094 farms in Mississippi sold $6.96 million worth of food directly to consumers that year, while the 2012 Census of Agriculture estimated that 1,206 Mississippi farms sold $4.28 million in 2012.
“Horticultural crops, whether used for food or for aesthetic purposes, play an important role in U.S. agriculture,” Collart said. “They are a key component of the U.S. food supply, provide nutrients vital to human diets, enhance our surrounding environments, and improve our personal well-being.”
Collart said the desire to buy food grown locally is more than a passing trend.
“Recently, the 2018 farm bill provided support for local food through programs such as the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP),” she said. “This program, which combines the existing Farmers Markets and Local Food Promotion Program and the Value Added Producer Grant Program, was provided with $500 million in funding over 10 years and is authorized through fiscal year 2023.”
Consumer demand for organic food remains strong. Collart said fresh fruits and vegetables continue to outsell other food categories of organically grown food.
“To regulate inadequate organic certification programs and protect consumer trust, the 2018 farm bill reviewed the National Organic Program,” she said. “It also reviewed the structure and functioning of the National Organic Standard Board and re-established the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program.
Another big topic is food safety. Collart said enhancing food safety at the farm level is an ongoing conversation in the produce industry, as covered farms work to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule.
The 2018 farm bill also legalized the production of hemp as an agricultural commodity.
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