JACKSON, Miss. – The manufacturing jobs that flowed into Mississippi in the last half-century revolutionized the state’s economy, but says Governor Haley Barbour, agriculture remains its backbone.

“We need to make all of our citizens aware of the tremendous contributions agriculture and farmers make to our state’s economic well-being,” he said at a Beyond the City Limits conference he called for leaders from state’s farm, business, government, and educational sectors. An estimated 500 people took part in the event at Jackson.

Agriculture generated $5.6 billion in 2003 and represented 30 percent of the state’s work force, directly and indirectly, he noted. “Tens of thousands of jobs are dependent on what happens on our farms and in our forests, and we need to look at ways to improve agriculture and explore new avenues for creating opportunities that will allow our rural areas to thrive.”

That Mississippi remains more rural than most states is an advantage, not a liability, Barbour says.

“Our rural communities offer residents special characteristics and qualities that can’t be found in larger metropolitan areas.” The governor notes with pride that, during a 20-year career in which he created one of the nation’s most successful lobbying firms in Washington, D.C., he commuted weekly to his home in Yazoo City, Miss., “because that’s where I wanted to live and wanted my children to grow up. ”

It’s an environment and a lifestyle that has great appeal and should be capitalized upon, he says. “I cherish the upbringing Yazoo City gave me as a boy, and I want others to be able to have similar experiences for years to come. We have a chance to preserve these attributes for our children and grandchildren and for those who want to move here for this unique quality of life.”

To bolster the state’s economy and provide those rural lifestyle opportunities will require creative leadership by its rural communities, he says, as well as by the legislature, universities and community colleges, farmers, business leaders, conservationist, and economic developers.

This will include increased emphasis on value-added products from the state’s farms, Barbour says, and a focus on technological advancement and educational excellence. Pointing to budget cuts for education in recent years, he says he restored $100 million “and to the legislature’s credit, they kept it in (the budget). Our schools, community colleges, and universities must be the foundation for our future. We have to embrace the concept of lifelong learning in Mississippi.”

While government can play a key role in these efforts through facilitation of research and development, he says, participation by the private sector “will be of major importance” in providing capital for taking advantage of new products being developed from the state’s agricultural and forest sectors.

Ethanol and other synthetic fuels represent a huge opportunity for Mississippi agriculture and the state’s economy, he says. “If Congress passes the president’s energy bill, we’ll see a real increase in the market for biofuels because of the mandates in the legislation.”

In discussions throughout the day, experts pointed to opportunities for the state to capitalize on technology, eco-tourism, recreation, hunting/fishing/outdoors pursuits, increased agricultural exports, and value-added farm products.

“I’m totally convinced we’re on the right track, Barbour said at the conclusion of the conference. “I hope we’ve made a start on better understanding that we’ve got something really special and valuable here and that we need to maximize it.

“Agriculture has had an enormous impact on our state, but I believe there are even greater opportunities ahead of us. We need to embrace a rural renewal and to catch the wave that will help us to realize the full potential of agriculture and the wonderful lifestyles offered by our rural communities.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com