Southern produce growers looking for the latest information on pesticide safety, new techniques for growing crops, or updates on university research should attend the Deep South Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference and Trade Show.

The former Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference has joined with the Ark-La-Miss Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference and Trade Show to become the much larger, much improved Deep South conference. Sponsors of this year's meeting, which is set for Dec. 4-6 in Biloxi, Miss., include Southeast Farm Press and Delta Farm Press. The conference will be held at the President Broadwater Towers Hotel and Conference Center.

“Farmers talking with farmers is one of the goals of the conference. This four-state conference allows producers of unique crops to meet others in the same business since there aren't large numbers of fruit and/or vegetable growers in any one area,” says David Nagel, Extension professor of plant and soil sciences at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.

“I wholeheartedly recommend this meeting,” says Joe Kemble, a horticulturist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “This conference is for everyone. There is so much information out there that growers can benefit from.”

Kemble, who is the educational advisor to the Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, says the four states merged their conferences to make the most of their resources. “The resources to put on conferences were dwindling in each state,” he says. “By combining resources, we can put on a much better program for the growers in each state.”

The conference features growers from each state discussing what has worked for them as well as university speakers. The blend of scientific research with real-world experience will provide attendees with an immediately usable knowledge base.

Last year, Alabama's conference had about 150 participants, and the Mid-South conference pulled in more than 300 growers in their fourth annual meeting.

“It's difficult for anyone to stay up-to-date on all the changes that are occurring in agriculture,” Kemble says. “There are constant changes in everything from farm bills to worker protection standards to migrant labor issues to pesticide updates to current research. There is no way one person could ever keep up with all of that. At the conference, all that information is put together for you, and you can get a synopsis of the information you need.”

Though fruits and vegetables may not be the South's most acreage-intense crops, they are well represented in the region's agriculture. They also could be, according to Nagel, the Mid-South's most lucrative crops on a per-acre basis. “The volume is not very large, but they gross three to 20 times what cotton does,” he says.

Some of the more important crops grown in the area include sweet potatoes; sweet corn; collards; turnip, mustard and other greens; Southern peas; lima or “butter” and green beans; watermelons, tomatoes, squash; peaches; strawberries; and apples. Herbs and specialty crops also are grown.

“Watermelons, tomatoes and cantaloupes are becoming very important crops in Alabama,” Kemble says. “We have more people actually shipping them outside the state now. Pumpkins also are becoming an important crop.”

On the other hand, many Mississippi growers are concentrating on local markets and meeting demand for fresher produce. There are still large acreage producers who ship hundreds of miles by the semi-load, but many growers sell within a half-day's journey of the farm. Farmer's markets and roadside stands allow consumers to buy fresher produce and put a larger percentage of money in the grower's pocket, Nagel says.

In 1999, fruit and vegetable producers turned a profit of more than $64 million. Kemble says he expects revenue in 2002 to surpass that figure. It's an important industry, and growers really need to stay on top of things to stay competitive,” he says. “As a grower, you can't just do your own thing and ignore whatever is around you. To remain competitive, you need all of the information you can get.”

The Deep South Conference allows growers to use the combined resources of several different states for extra insight and information, Kemble says. “We all rely on each other. In Alabama, we rely on people from states like Georgia, Mississippi and Florida to get the information we need to be successful.”

This year's conference will feature the “Taste of the States” exhibit, allowing participants to taste foods produced in each of the four states represented. According to event organizers, Louisiana will be bringing in some Cajun and Creole dishes, and Alabama is planning a feast of apples, Asian pears, mandarin oranges, persimmons, pecans and boiled peanuts. Registration for the conference is $40 per person, and can be completed online at www.msstate.edu/dept/cmrec/mfvga.htm.