“There’s a lot of work to be done for Mississippi agriculture and agribusiness, and a tremendous challenge in creating a greater awareness by the consumer public of the importance of agriculture to our state and the world,” says Cyndi Hyde-Smith, the state’s new commissioner of agriculture and commerce.

“So many folks nowadays don’t have a clue what it takes to get their food and clothing into the retail chain — including, unfortunately, a lot of those in government positions,” she said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Land Bank.

 “They need to be aware: We feed you; we clothe you.

“It drives me crazy, the image some people have of the farmer as just some guy with a seventh grade education driving a tractor through the fields,” Hyde-Smith says.

“The men and women in Mississippi agriculture are on the cutting edge of technology and production methods that make us the envy of the world in food and fiber production. The Mississippi Land Bank and others who support the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s excellent Farm Families of Mississippi promotional campaign are to be congratulated for helping to spread the word about agriculture’s contributions to our nation’s food security.”

Hyde-Smith was elected to the state agriculture post last November, the first woman to ever hold the position. She had previously served 12 years in the Mississippi Senate, eight of those as chairperson of the Agriculture Committee.She and her husband, Mike, raise beef cattle and are partners in Lincoln County Livestock, the local stockyard auction market at Brookhaven, Miss., which has held a live cattle auction every Tuesday since 1942.

Agriculture, at $7.02 billion, continues to hold the rank of Mississippi’s No. 1 industry, she notes, employing approximately 29 percent of the state’s work force, either directly or indirectly. There are approximately 42,400 farms in the state covering 11.2 million acres.

The Mississippi Land Bank had “another strong year,” with almost $7.2 million net income, Gary Gaines, president, said at the annual meeting. “We paid $1.325 million in patronage dividends.

“The bank has a strong balance sheet,” he says, with loans outstanding of $402 million and member equity of $78.4 million. “That equates to a permanent capital ratio of 15.1 percent, which is very strong in any economy — but is exceptionally strong in the economy we face today and considering the large national deficit.

Many loans paid off, paid down

“Our new business for 2011 started slow in the first quarter, but things picked up as the year proceeded and we ended with a strong fourth quarter. At the same time, we had a lot of loans that were paid off or paid down, thanks to the good year farmers had.

“There also were a lot of cash sales of land and assets last year that didn’t need financing, another indicator of the strong agricultural economy in the region. All this meant fewer loans for us, but we are of course happy that Mississippi farmers are making money and being successful.”

The bank started 2012 with “a very strong first quarter,” Gaines says, “and we hope that will continue the rest of the year.

“The credit quality of our loan portfolio is extremely strong. At the end of 2011, we had 97.2 percent acceptable loans, and only 0.6 percent loans with minor problems. In any economy, almost 98 percent credit quality is outstanding.

“Our Senatobia branch exceeded $100 million in loans this past year — our first branch to reach that threshold. Our Starkville and Clarksdale branches we almost at the $100 million level.”

While the majority of the bank’s loans are for land, Gaines said this marks the third year for the organization to be in the commercial lending sector, providing short term loans for production, equipment, cattle, etc.

“We’re pleased that in the short period of time we’ve been in this lending arena, we closed last year with about $12 million in short term loans. We will build on that this year and look for this to be a strong sector of business for us in the future as the number of land sales may decline.

“There will continue to be demand for short term financing of equipment and other production needs, and we’re excited about the opportunities to build our portfolio of these loans over the next few years.”

Mississippi Land Bank is a part of the nationwide Farm Credit System, a financial cooperative owned by its member-borrowers since 1916. Unlike commercial banking institutions, because of its unique cooperative structure the member-borrowers share in the profits generated from lending activity in the form of patronage dividends.

“This can significantly reduce the cost of borrowing for our member-borrowers.” Gaines says.”

The bank, headquartered at Senatobia, serves 32 counties in north Mississippi, with 10 additional offices located throughout northern Mississippi at Clarksdale, Cleveland, Corinth, Houston, Indianola, Kosciusko, Louisville, New Albany, Starkville and Tupelo.