ROBINSONVILLE, Miss. -- Agriculture in Mississippi is a $5.5 billion per year industry — and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wiped out nearly half of that, says Lester Spell, the state’s commissioner of agriculture and commerce.

“Everyone thought nothing could top the destruction of Hurricane Camille in 1969, but Katrina was much, much worse,” he said at the ninth annual Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference. “For 125 miles along the Gulf Coast, there was devastation to agriculture like we’d never seen before.”

Then, less than a month later, Hurricane Rita came along, causing more destruction and slowing damage assessment and recovery.

Among losses to the state’s agriculture, Spell said:

• $30 million for commercial poultry production, with 6.7 million birds lost, and $132 million for poultry houses.

• $22 million to the dairy industry, with thousands of pounds of milk lost because of no means to transport, store, and refrigerate it.

• $1.6 billion-plus to the timber industry.

• $90 million for cotton, $19 million for rice, $18 million for soybeans, and $17 million for corn.

• $17 million for beef cattle; $17 million for catfish; $19 million for the nursery industry; and $5.3 million for the trees/vines sector.

“All told, we had losses of $2.2 billion and all of the state’s 82 counties were declared an agricultural emergency,” said Spell, who commended the “excellent response” from federal and state governments and members of the Mississippi congressional delegation in helping to deal with the situation.

“A lot of people worked around the clock, at great sacrifice. David Wade, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, was of tremendous assistance in lining up tanker trucks to distribute diesel fuel to critical areas.

“We were overwhelmed by the generosity of farmers and farm organizations all over the country. They sent supplies, hay, feed, money, and people. One big crew came in a bus from North Dakota and went to work repairing fences, cleaning up farmsteads, and helping people start getting their lives back in order.

“Faith-based groups, both in-state and from all over the country, did a tremendous job of humanitarian assistance. The work of these groups probably touched as many lives as anything else.”

Spell, who has been under fire in the Mississippi media for agricultural economic development projects administered through his department’s Land, Water, and Timber Resources Board — notably the failure of a state-backed $55 million beef processing facility — defended the board as helping to develop new and expanded uses for Mississippi agricultural products.

“We have many, many good success stories,” he said. Among the enterprises he cited as having benefited from the board’s grants:

• TimTek, a company that is developing unique wood products from pine plantation thinnings and “promises to be a boon to the state’s timber industry.”

• InTime, which “has become a national leader in technology that farmers need to be more efficient.”

• Natchez Trace Greenhouses, which has been able to save $250,000 annually in heating costs by switching to a system that burns wood and waste products.

• Homan Industries, which has saved $25,000 per month by switching their kilns from natural gas to heat generated from waste products.

• Indi-Bel, which is now “the largest producer of catfish feed in the nation, utilizing as much as 4 million bushels of locally-grown corn.”

Spell said legislation has been proposed for 2006 that would establish a corn checkoff program that would generate $500,000 annually, and a soybean promotion checkoff that would generate $600,000 yearly. The soybean measure would also protect producers from the state government taking checkoff funds for other purposes.

Both bills have gained approval of the House and Senate agriculture committees.

Another measure would allow Mississippi to join 36 other states in an Interstate Pest Control Compact, which “would function as an insurance policy against exotic pests, such as Asian soybean rust, the Sirex wasp, sudden oak disease, and others.” It would, he said, allow “immediate response” in times of emergency and provide funds for eradication purposes.

The Mississippi Agricultural Aviation Board and the state’s ag aviation industry were praised by Spell for their efforts to reduce spray drift complaints.

“As a result of their efforts, we’ve seen drift complaints drop from 150 in 2000 to only 10 in 2005 — that’s a tremendous accomplishment!”

The Mississippi sweet potato industry achieved a milestone Jan. 31, Spell said, with the first-ever shipment of sweet potatoes to Mexico, representing “another step in market expansion for our growers. We have to be competitive, or others will take our markets.”

The conservations system conference is sponsored by Mid-America Farm Publications, with Delta Farm Press as media co-sponsor.

e-mail: hbrandon@prismb2b.com.com