Mississippi is on the cutting edge in agriculture, says Lester Spell, the state's commissioner of agriculture and commerce. “But we can do better — and we will do better.”

With more value-added products from the state's farms and forests, “we can generate even more dollars for agriculture,” he said at the Beyond the City Limits conference on agriculture called by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. An estimated 500 persons attended the event at Jackson, Miss.

The Land Water and Timber Resources Act of 2001, passed by the state's legislature, is “one of the best pieces of legislation ever passed,” Spell said. “It is designed to develop new products from agriculture and to enhance the commodities we produce. Since the act was passed, the state has invested $26 million in 34 projects that have resulted in 1,400 jobs.

“Another very successful effort has been the Make Mine Mississippi program, which allows businesses in the state to use a specially-designed logo for all Mississippi products. A survey has shown 90 percent of the state's consumers indicate a preference for Mississippi products. For every $1 of grant money invested in this program, we've seen a $14 return.”

David Waide, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, said, “We're excited about this new emphasis on agriculture.”

The United States, he says, has “something other countries are envious of: the ability to feed and clothe an enormous population. No other nation has been able to duplicate our outstanding agricultural accomplishment.”

A key reason for the robust economy the United States has enjoyed in recent years is its vibrant agriculture sector, which has been fostered by the land grant system, Waide says.

“It is our economic engine in Mississippi, helping to maximize the value of our land, water, and timber resources.”

Increases in U.S. agricultural productivity have allowed the United States to reduce the number of people engaged in production of food and fiber to less than 2 percent, freeing the other 98 percent to engage in other economic pursuits. “This is an incredible accomplishment.”

Depending on the dollar multiple used, agriculture's value to Mississippi's economy is much more than the $5.65 billion in farm gate dollars posted in 2003, Waide says. “Using the standard multiplier of four, the value would be more than $20 billion. Some suggest a higher multiplier is more realistic and that the value of those agriculture dollars is closer to $35 billion to $40 billion.”

Some projects that have been fostered through the state's Land Water and Timber Act, include new manufactured wood products from TimTek.

“Mississippi State University researchers developed a process that is adding value to timber products. There is a tremendous acreage of pine trees in Mississippi, and when they are thinned after 10 to 12 years, it results in a lot of cull wood, with not much value.”

Wood previously used only for pulp is now used to manufacture framing or forming lumber that has many building uses, Waide says. “Because of its tremendous strength — nails just can't be pulled from it — we believe it has enormous potential for construction in areas with high wind exposure. It will probably double the stumpage value of juvenile pines and represents much added value to our state's timber industry.”

Another project, just launched by Mississippi Beef Producers, will specialize in feeding and processing cull cows and “will be a valuable resource to our cattle industry,” Waide says.

“We have a lot of cull cows that we don't think of as having much value, but it's phenomenal what corn grazing is doing for our cattle industry. Research indicates while cattle average 3 pounds to 3.5 pounds of gain per day in a feedlot, they can average 4 pounds to 5 pounds with an improved corn grazing method of fattening.

“They're moved directly from the corn to slaughter, and about 60 percent of the animals are grading choice. If they're moved into a feedlot, the number of days there is reduced to about 60, compared to the 120 to 130 days normally required.

“This should be a real entrepreneurial opportunity in Mississippi to revolutionize the way we deal with fat cattle. We'll be able to produce cattle on our farms, graze them on ryegrass, and in June put them on corn that's in hard dent stage and finish them without their ever leaving Mississippi. This can add a lot of value to the state's cattle industry.”

The state's long growing season and land and water resources offer many opportunities for vegetables and other specialty crops, Waide says.

“We can easily add value to these crops. We now have hydrocooler facilities that extend their shelf life and improve shipping quality. Mississippi blueberry producers, rather than being dependent on local markets, are now able to pack and ship their product all over the country, capturing additional value for the landowner and grower that hasn't previously been available.”

Mississippi now has sales of $80 million to $100 million annually in horticultural products, he says, “and I believe this can increase significantly in the future because of the added value these hydrocooling facilities will give producers by increasing the shelf life of their vegetables and perishable crops.

“We're continuing to do things in the vegetable industry that can help to make Mississippi's rural areas a highly productive part of our economy. Instead of growers just getting farm gate prices, we're going to see some of the retail market transferred to producers, and that will be a real incentive in rural areas, enhancing revenues that increase sales taxes and support functions of local governments, as well as generating more employment.”

Solid waste disposal may hold “tremendous opportunities” for Mississippi agriculture, Waide says. “Many of our metropolitan areas have problems with solid waste treatment lagoons. By utilizing this treated waste, agriculture can not only help solve the problem of over-filled lagoons, it can use these products to alleviate many of the nutrient problems on our farms — and in the process add more value.”

Machines are available to inject solid waste into crop soils so there's no odor or runoff problems, he notes.

Agriculture has the potential to help solve the nation's energy problems by making fuels from crops, Waide says. “We can't as a nation continue to import 60 percent or more of the fuel we need. If we produce a significant portion of these fuels in rural communities, from crops or biomass produced locally, think of the economic impact it will have. Technology is changing daily and agriculture's capability of reducing our dependence on foreign oil is constantly growing.”

While the state's farmers traditionally have not thought much about capturing value from wheat or oat straw, Waide says it can be used to produce a useful, quality mulch for the horticulture industry. “The technology now exists to do that — even to make colored mulch. In some cases, the value of the mulch and other byproducts from the straw can bring more dollars and cents to the farmer than the sale of the grain.”

At the University of Southern Mississippi, Waide says, polymers derived from soybeans are being used as replacement for many petroleum-based products.

“Among them is a paint that has no odor-producing formaldehyde, which means you can be in a room while it's being painted and have no objectionable odors or allergic reactions.”

The University of Mississippi is substantially involved in Global Positioning Systems research, Waide says, and recently received a $10 million grant to work on systems that can be used in agriculture.

“This research will enhance the value of agriculture and reduce the environmental consequences through more efficient use of nutrients and chemicals.”