Truck crop growers enjoy strong season
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Mississippi’s roadsides are seeing more farmers markets, produce stands and pickup trucks filled with fruits and vegetables.
Commercial horticultural crops, commonly called truck crops in the agricultural industry, include berries, fruits, melons, nuts, potatoes and vegetables. Last year, they combined with other horticultural crops -- flowers, sod and Christmas trees – for a total production value of $107 million, according to statistics gathered by the Mississippi State University Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine.
Currently, 117 farmers are registered with Mississippi Market Maker as selling fruits and nuts, while 153 producers sell vegetables. The number of farmers markets in the state has nearly doubled from 52 in 2010 to 95 now.
“Prices and consumer demand for Mississippi truck crops remain strong,” said Alba Collart, an agricultural economist and professor with the MSU Extension Service. “Consumer demand for organic, local and the farm-to-table movement also continues to grow.”
Greg Bollinger has run his produce barn in Oktibbeha County since 2004. He grows his own tomatoes and peppers but purchases a wide variety of other items from growers in east Mississippi and west Alabama to keep his shelves stocked. He typically has produce available from the beginning of May until mid-November.
“I go wherever I have to go, and this is the first year I’ve made my gas money back in the first week with a profit,” he said. “Usually, it takes two or three weeks to get people to come over. It’s been one of the best years I’ve had out of the gate.”
Despite an increase in avenues to sell their produce, truck crop growers have obstacles to overcome as the industry changes.
“Larger farmers may operate under more established selling contracts, but some smaller farmers are experiencing excess supply and need access to selling outlets or ways to develop value-added opportunities,” Collart said. “Access to markets and marketing assistance are some of the biggest challenges truck farmers in the state are facing.”
There are other production- and policy-related issues, such as high labor costs for specialty crops such as blueberries.
Insect, disease and weather problems are the more obvious threats confronting farmers each season. This year, the No. 1 problem for tomatoes has been southern blight, a fungal disease that thrives in humid climates and on rain-drenched plants. Those same conditions, however, have helped other truck crops.
Reid Nevins, MSU Extension agent in Lowndes County, works with a dozen produce growers and grows sweet corn and peas himself, both of which have performed well in east Mississippi this year.
“I can’t put my finger on anything out of the ordinary that we’ve dealt with on disease or insect pressure,” he said. “The heat we’ve had over the last couple of weeks has been tough on some of our vegetables, but it’s been a really good year for sweet corn. We hit the rains just right, and it was a little cooler in early June during pollination. I’m pulling peas right now, and they look really good.”
MSU Extension recently launched Local Flavor, a web microsite that delivers information on each facet of the state’s local foods industry. For more information, visit http://extension.msstate.edu/agriculture/local-flavor.