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State’s horticulture maintains strength
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- If inquiries about new or expanded businesses are the heartbeat of Mississippi horticulture, then agricultural economist Alba Collart knows 2015 is a healthy year for the industry.
Collart, assistant professor of agricultural economics with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said horticultural crops are important to Mississippi’s agricultural economy. These specialty crops include fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and products grown for environmental horticulture, also known as the green industry.
In 2014, out of the state’s 16 commodities, specialty crops ranked No. 10 with an estimated farm-gate value of $114 million. That placed it ahead of hay, sweet potatoes, wheat, dairy, grain sorghum and peanuts.
“Several factors are contributing to a strong horticulture economy: consumer emphasis on health and nutrition issues may be driving at least part of the consumer interest in locally grown produce and foods sold through direct-to-consumer channels such as farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture,” Collart said.
“Several provisions in the new farm bill provide support to the rapidly expanding organic food sector,” she said. “There was a 55 percent increase in support funding for the industry over the previous bill. Much of that is indirect support for specialty crop farmers through school feeding programs and research and Extension programs.”
Collart said Mississippi’s greenhouse and landscape businesses have been in recovery mode in the decade following Hurricane Katrina. Just as progress was beginning, the economic recession hit.
“When money is tight, one of the first items to cut is discretionary spending on flower beds and landscaping,” she said. “Sending flowers becomes a real luxury that many people skip.”
Collart said the economy is improving as new construction increases, which typically benefits the industry through demand for landscaping projects. National housing starts for August were 1.126 million units, almost 17 percent higher than last year.
“When the final figures are in, we have reason to expect 2015 to be a good year for horticulture,” she said.
One area of the industry, floristry, is experiencing challenges from competition with retail floral outlets.
“Traditional retail shops have trouble competing with flowers available at grocery stores seven days a week and, in some cases, 24 hours a day,” said Jim Del Prince, floral design specialist at the MSU Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi.
DelPrince said retailers statewide compete with Internet-based retail companies, termed “order gatherers,” that market on a local level and then use local florists to fill orders. Online companies then keep a percentage of the sale as a service fee.
“The good news is that more people are purchasing and enjoying cut flowers,” he said. “Retail florists continue to be in demand for technical services of wedding and sympathy flowers.”
DelPrince said there are exciting career opportunities, but graduates need to be open-minded and look for openings in manufacturing, wholesaling and importing. Floral management positions are also available.
Richard Harkess, MSU professor and undergraduate coordinator in plant and soil sciences, said job openings remained strong throughout the recession.
“Graduates typically take jobs in sales and marketing with horticulture and allied industries; with production nurseries, greenhouses, botanical gardens, lawn and landscaping businesses; and as horticulturists for cities, theme parks and golf courses or the Extension Service,” Harkess said.
Harkess said the prices for bedding plants have not changed significantly in 20 years, so profit margins are much tighter. One of the biggest career limitations is pay, but the potential for better money is closely tied to college degrees.
“Students may come into the program because they enjoy growing plants, but along the way, they need to learn the business aspects and other factors that go into the industry, like sales and marketing,” he said.
Harkess described today’s students as “energetic and innovative.” The biggest challenge is teaching students production scheduling and to anticipate future needs in order to complete tasks in time.
“A lot of advanced planning goes into horticulture, and most 20-year-olds are not conditioned to look very far down the road,” he said. “If they don’t understand it when they graduate, they will learn it soon.”
Anna McCain is a 2011 horticulture graduate. Now working as an Extension agent in Warren County, she will soon have her master’s degree.
“When I graduated, I wanted to help fill the gap between consumers and researchers; that’s exactly what I’m doing with Extension,” she said. “I would estimate that 99 percent of the calls I get are home horticulture problems or something related to plant science. Extension was the perfect career path for me because I am able to work with a wide variety of plant material, and there is a different challenge every day.”