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Spell: State leads alternative energy efforts

By By Fredie Carmichael / staff writer
Oct. 20, 2003
The state's commissioner of agriculture and commerce says Mississippi is leading an effort to decrease U.S. dependency on foreign countries for energy.
Lester Spell has served as head of the Mississippi State Department of Agriculture and Commerce for eight years.
Spell, a Democrat and former veterinarian and mayor of Richland, will meet Republican Max Phillips of Taylorsville and Reform Party candidate Bob Claunch of Diamondhead in the Nov. 4 election. The agriculture commissioner earns $90,000 a year.
Spell met with The Meridian Star's editorial board last week to discuss the status of agriculture in Mississippi and its future.
The Meridian Star: How important is agriculture to Mississippi's economy?
Lester Spell: In Mississippi, most people are two, maybe three generations away from a farm and they don't realize the fact that agriculture is still the largest industry in the state. It has about a $20 billion economic impact in the state of Mississippi every year.
There's been a lot of talk in our state about NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and I think we've all got to realize that we have lost some jobs that have gone to other countries. These are lower-paying jobs, less skill-type jobs.
That tendency is probably going to continue, so I think it's kind of a wake-up call for Mississippi to re-look at what our real resources and what our strongest resources are, and here again, it's agriculture.
The Star: What are some of the ways in which agriculture can boost the state's economy?
Spell: There are a lot of exciting things going on in agriculture today that offer a lot of potential. Two years ago, the Land, Water and Timber Resource Board was created. What they did in that legislation was create a 14-member board, and put $10 million in there the first year with the goal that we wanted to enhance agriculture and industry. Find those industries in the state that either want to upscale their operation, give added-value or some new ventures out there that need some help from financing.
Today, almost $19 million has been invested in projects in Mississippi. It ranges from everything from the catfish industry to the blueberry industry, to high tech industry to alternative energy in the state and so forth. Last year, in addition to that money, they earmarked about $8 million for alternative energy. In other words, find those types of alternative energy that can be beneficial in Mississippi.
That's another good horizon for agriculture in Mississippi is alternative energy. When you look at our state, we have almost 31 million acres in this state and of that, a little over 19 million is in forestry.
Most of that is private forestry land and you think of all the timber that's harvested each year. Think of all the limbs, tree tops that are left in the woods, potential sources of some type of industry.
You look at Scandinavian countries, they harvest timber they take everything out. They make wood pellets out of them and use it as a source of fuel.
Think about this: before we sent our military forces into Iraq, the United States was buying as much as, or more than, 700,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Iraq. So you quickly see how dependent we are on foreign countries, some of which are very anti-American.
The question that looms is should the strongest nation in the world be that dependent on foreign countries for a source of energy. The answer is no.
We can use renewable alternative energy. A good substitute for gasoline is ethanol. The most economical way to make ethanol today is with corn and we grow corn in the state of Mississippi. This year, we had over 600,000 acres of corn grown in the state of Mississippi. So as you can see, we can make a difference there. Suddenly there's a new market for the corn in the state of Mississippi.
The Star: Will you seek some additional legislative action next year to get that program more stable?
Spell: I really hope so. The key things here are: Is Congress going to come to grips with the fact and develop some national energy policy that is more favorable to renewable energy sources? I think there's a growing feeling in the United States among all the people that hey, we really realize how dependent we are on these other countries for fuel and what can we do?
The Star: What ranks as the top agricultural industry in the state?
Spell: Poultry is still at the top. It's followed closely by timber. So naturally with poultry being so big we have a lot of poultry litter. And poultry litter is a growing type of industry for alternative industry. Last year, a group of Mississippians and someone from our office went to England and looked at three different plants that were electrical generating plants that used poultry litter as fuel. They took poultry litter, burned it and produced steam to generate electricity.
So there are a lot of exciting things going on and we're looking forward to continuing what we've started.