For too long, says Leland Speed, Mississippi communities have looked to factories locating in the state to provide jobs — but that ship has sailed.

“We've lost 67,000 manufacturing jobs in our state in the last 10 years,” the executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority said at Governor Haley Barbour's conference on agriculture, Beyond the City Limits.

“We've waited for economic development departments to bring us factories. Economic salvation was going to come from out of town. But newspapers have been full of stories about plant closings, downsizings, and lost jobs, and we're still seeing it.”

Companies relocating are “looking at much broader geographies than they once did,” Speed notes. “Last year, there were only about 1,000 searches for new business sites in the entire United States. There are more than 15,000 economic development districts trying to attract new businesses. A lot of people came home from the party empty-handed.”

On a positive note, Speed says, his department is “working with more prospects today than at any time our staff can remember.”

The challenge confronting the state, he says, is for every rural community to assess it's own strengths and weaknesses and formulate plans for creating opportunities.

“We're going to have to look more at internal growth, rather than hoping for somebody from the outside to bring a solution. Those communities that have the energy and imagination to capitalize on their strengths and assets will do well.”

Mississippi is primarily a collection of small, mostly rural communities, Speed says, “and that's where the action is — and where I think our future will be. We must focus on them and help them to achieve success.

“Good things are happening here. We're demonstrating to everyone the capabilities we knew all along that we have.”

He cites the new Nissan automobile plant near Canton, Miss., the largest auto assembly facility built at one time in the world.

“It's also the most sophisticated in the world. They manufacture five different products; there's not another auto plant in the United States that does that. They produce a new Infiniti with just 16 hours of direct labor, from stamping the hood until a guy jumps in the finished car and drives it off the assembly line.

“There are 5,400 people working there, and only 50 of those are not from Mississippi. That's a lot of jobs contributing to the economy of our state, including a lot of rural areas. There was a lot of skepticism in the auto business worldwide that Mississippi could pull this off, that maybe we'd bit off more than we could chew. We've showed them all.”

And, he notes, the Lockheed Martin Co. just completed delivery of the first space satellite ever manufactured in Mississippi.

“Right now, Mississippi is as close to getting its stars aligned as the real world allows us,” Speed says.

“We have improving national and world economies; a governor who's committed to progress and probably personally knows more national CEOs and business leaders than anyone in the country; and a senator (Thad Cochran, R-Miss.) who's about to assume chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations and Homeland Security committees.

“We have more clout in Washington than we've probably ever had,” and that bodes well for the state's business and agriculture, he says.

Vance Watson, vice president of Mississippi State University's Division of Agriculture, Forestry, and Veterinary Medicine, noting that Mississippi agriculture had a record $5.65 billion farm gate value last year, says it's time for the sector to move to “the next level.”

“We've got to think globally, not just on a local basis, and how we can capture added value from what we produce.” In the past, he says, farmers “have spent a lot of time growing and producing crops, but too often have been poor marketers.”

Identity-preserved crops can offer a way to increase the value of the state's commodities, Watson says.

“If you pick up a box of Cheerios at the supermarket and see the red heart symbol, it signifies that the oat variety in that cereal has heart-healthy characteristics. Growers produce that variety of oats only for Cheerios and capture value-added dollars. We need to do more of that with the crops we grow in Mississippi.”

Made in Mississippi products that carry the special logo, “Make Mine Mississippi,” offer another way to preserve identity and realize extra value, he says.

Mississippi farmers have the highest technology adoption rate in the United States, Watson notes. “Over 95 percent of our cotton and soybeans are technology-added varieties that are helping farmers to reduce costs and improve yields.

“With our unique advantages of water, a long growing season, good soils, a good infrastructure for moving products, and superb production ability, we have great assets for agriculture.”

Farmers and rural community residents are good stewards, Watson says. “They believe it's part of their job to preserve these assets and leave them better than they got them, and that's the ethic and lifestyle that are spurring growth in our rural areas.”

Last year set all-time records for production of cotton, rice, soybeans, corn, and sweet potatoes, he notes, and gross production value per farm almost doubled, going from $73,000 average for the past five years to $130,000 in 2003. “Production values rose 31 percent from 2002, and that's a great accomplishment for our state's farmers.”

If the value-added component is factored in, the top four commodities last year (poultry, forestry, cotton, and soybeans) topped $17 billion, Watson says.

More than 510,000 jobs — 34 percent of the state's workforce — are directly related to agriculture or forestry, Watson says.


hbrandon@primediabusiness.com