Mississippi

Mississippi farmers need their stories heard, says state’s first female agriculture chief

A farmer drives his tractor through a corn field near Hollandale, Miss., in 2011. “We’ve done a terrible job of telling our story,” Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith told the Sun Herald. One way to counter that is agritourism, she said.
A farmer drives his tractor through a corn field near Hollandale, Miss., in 2011. “We’ve done a terrible job of telling our story,” Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith told the Sun Herald. One way to counter that is agritourism, she said. AP file

What keeps her up at night is knowing 30 percent more food will be needed to feed the world’s population in just 30 years, said Mississippi’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith.

The world’s population will be 34 percent higher by 2050 and is growing faster than food production, she said. It will take research and science-based facts and not emotion, she said, to provide enough for the world to eat.

She expects Mississippi farmers to be a part of that increase in production and says, “Get out of my way because the population’s growing and we have to produce more.”

As the first female agriculture commissioner in the state and one of only a few in the country, she oversees the farmers and grocery stores that supply food to Mississippi consumers.

Hyde-Smith grew up on a farm and she and her family raise beef cattle.

She’s also president of the Southern United States Trade Association and said, “That puts me in another arena.” After being part of negotiations to get China to drop its ban on U.S. beef, she’s now working to do the same for poultry.

She has work to do to raise not just more food, but the perception of farms in Mississippi. Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Mississippi, but many people don’t know that.

“We’ve done a terrible job of telling our story,” she said.

One way to counter that is agritourism, which combines two of Mississippi’s leading economic drivers — agriculture and tourism — by bringing people out to the farm and providing additional revenue for farmers.

October was Agritourism Month in Mississippi, when families go on the farm to pick pumpkins and wind through corn mazes.

“They want that taste of the farm,” she said. “It is exhilarating for them,” and for the kids who have never seen a cow except on the side of the road, “You see their eyes dancing out of their head.”

Now it’s time for Mississippians to find the prettiest Christmas tree, and Hyde-Smith says her department has a mobile app for finding Christmas tree farms, farmers’ markets and restaurants that use local produce.

Seventy agritourism operations are listed on the app and Mississippi Department of Transportation has installed exit signs on some state highways to direct people to the farms and markets.

About 23 million people travel to and around the state each year, she said, and she wants to draw some of them to Mississippi’s farms and markets. People are looking for that fresh, locally grown produce, she said, something people in more rural Mississippi have grown up with compared to urban areas, where shoppers pay more for foods labeled as organic.

The focus on food security and healthy eating provides lots of opportunity for Mississippi, she said. She feels it’s her responsibility to help find new markets for Mississippi products and encourage family farms that she said are strong in Mississippi.

“The last thing we want is for our farmers to get out of farming here,” she said.

By the numbers

Agriculture is Mississippi’s No. 1 industry, employing 29 percent of the workforce either directly or indirectly. The numbers for 2016 show:

  • $7.6 billion agriculture industry in Mississippi
  • 36,700 farms in the state
  • 294 acres is average size farm
  • $2.9 billion in sales from poultry and eggs
  • $1.4 billion forestry industry in the state, covering 19.7 million acres
  • $1 billion in soybeans grown in the state
  • $442 million in cotton grown on 824 farms
  • $169 million in catfish produced, the highest in the country
  • $116 million in sweet potatoes harvested

Mississippi Department of Agriculture & Commerce

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