High fuel prices give many people a reason to complain, but they also may drive the resurgence of an industry that was big business in Mississippi 100 years ago.
David Nagel, vegetable specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said fuel prices have made it more difficult for vegetable growers on the West Coast to ship produce across the country and still make a profit.
“With $3 diesel, folks wind up paying more in freight than they do for carrots, onions, potatoes, lettuce or whatever it is that they need to ship,” Nagel said. “Now companies are once again interested in developing a commercial-size vegetable industry in the southeast, and Mississippi is one of the areas they are looking at.”
Nagel said his office in MSU’s Plant and Soil Sciences Department has received numerous inquiries from companies that can vegetables, supply the fresh market, or process frozen produce.
“They’re interested in what we can supply, how long our market window is going to be, and how much we can supply,” Nagel said.
Vegetables being considered for mass production in Mississippi include potatoes, onions, carrots, southern peas and green beans.
Even things like collard greens, turnip greens and mustard greens, staples for truck crops and backyard gardens, are in demand nationally.
“City folks don’t grow their own greens, but since dietitians have touted the health benefits of greens so widely, there is more demand for them,” Nagel said. “Consumers demand for these greens to be sold washed and cut, so producing them requires a planter, field hands for harvest, and equipment to wash and cool them so they can be shipped for processing.”
A major consideration for those thinking about starting to produce vegetables on a commercial scale is the equipment needed. Nagel said planters used for soybeans or cotton can plant Southern peas, and most modern combines can harvest this crop. Other vegetables such as carrots or potatoes need specialized planters and diggers.
Nagel urged any Mississippi producers interested in diversifying their operations by beginning or expanding vegetable production to contact their local Extension offices. He said Extension Service personnel could be a great asset to producers trying to determine if they should begin vegetable production.
Roy Nichols is supervisor and co-owner of Delta Harvest in Indianola, Miss. His farm has 56 acres of greens, 10 acres of cabbage and 1,100 acres of sweet corn grown under contract to Wal-Mart. Delta Harvest plans to increase acreage of each of those crops dramatically in the next year or two.
“We’re growing as a direct result of high fuel costs,” Nichols said. “We’re a lot closer to some of the distribution points than some growers in Georgia or Florida.”
Delta Harvest got into the produce business almost eight years ago growing cantaloupes, watermelon and corn in Pelahatchie, Miss., before Nichols moved his production to the sandier soils around Indianola. The acreage being turned into commercial vegetable production is coming from cotton and field corn.
“You look at what cotton prices are doing and what field corn is doing, and you look at what this will do,” Nichols said of the decision to take land from these traditional row crops for vegetable production.
Nichols is finding better profits with the vegetable production, but he said there have been many expenses along the way, such as specialized equipment and the cost of meeting high production standards required of produce headed to stores.