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Spell: Agriculture plays major economic role

By By Steve Gillespie / staff writer
June 3, 2002
Lester Spell, Agriculture and Commerce commissioner in Mississippi, met with The Meridian Star editorial board last week to talk about the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce.
Spell, a veterinarian, was elected state agriculture commissioner after serving as mayor of Richland from 1975 to 1996. Spell succeeded former Commissioner Jim Buck Ross.
The Meridian Star: What is your assessment of the new national farm bill and it's effect on Mississippi?
Lester Spell: In Mississippi, it's absolutely critical we have a bill of this nature. There's a lot of talk about these subsidies, but it costs a lot more production-wise to grow crops that we grow like rice and cotton than it does to grow corn or wheat.
Agriculture is the largest economy in the state today. One in every three jobs in Mississippi is directly related to agriculture, so the farm bill means it is going to help give stability to agriculture in the world market.
The Star: What are the top commodities grown in Mississippi?
Spell: Poultry is No. 1, generating about $1.5 billion, followed by forestry, a $1.3 billion industry. No. 3 is cotton, about $518 million; four is catfish, $292 million; and fifth is cattle, a $256 million industry.
We've dedicated $5 million in grants to the new cattle processing plant in Oakland, Miss. The site is on Old 51 Highway. We think it will employ at least 350 folks.
From the center point, it is now 450 miles to a major beef processing facility. Our closest ones are in Augusta, Ga., and Palestine, Texas. There are a few small plants in the state that handle just a few cattle a week, but we're talking about a major plant.
It will be able to process 750 to 1,000 head of cattle per day, producing about 60 percent hamburger meat and 40 percent prime cuts. The potential salary impact is about $8.4 million in annual salaries for 350 jobs at an average of $12 per hour.
The Star: What role does your agency play in conservation and environmental issues?
Spell: Our agency looks at environmental issues, and often times agriculture gets the blame for certain components we may find in the air or in streams. We're moving now toward scientific proof of the origins of these things. We're participating with groups at Mississippi State and the University of Southern Mississippi to be able to analyze a problem in a stream, the origin of it and decide if it really is a problem or not.
One of the biggest challenges agriculture faces is to be perceived as a good steward of our natural resources.
The Star: What is the difference between Vietnamese catfish and Mississippi farm-raised catfish?
Spell: You can easily tell the difference looking at the fish. Once the fish are processed, it becomes increasingly difficult to look at the filet and tail and texture and tell a difference. I can't tell you about taste. Many of the concerns we have about it are in many instances the conditions the fish are grown over there, the inspections they don't have that our fish have from a health food safety standpoint. And they've been able to come in and undercut the market.
The Star: What new opportunities are available in agriculture?
Spell: More and more incentives are offered by different states and on the national level to encourage the use of ethanol. It's much more environmentally friendlier than gas is and we're excited about the possibilities.
We're also visiting with a company called Fibrowatt. They have three plants in England that generate electricity. Their primary source of making steam to generate electricity is poultry litter. The same company is in the process of building a plant in Minnesota. Several people from the state were there touring the plants a couple of weeks ago.
The only problem is you can't produce electricity as cheaply using that process as you can using nuclear energy. But if we move more and more into being sensitive in handling environmental waste products, then we're going to see more incentives.
There's some good possibilities for Mississippi to take advantage of. There are probably more opportunities in agriculture than ever before.