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Team efforts address farming challenges
HOUSTON – Two Chickasaw County farmers are discovering it takes a village to raise a crop.
Doil Moore and James Earnest have been business partners for more than two decades, but their latest adventure requires an extensive network of advisors to guide them through each challenge. In 2009, they started a small produce business on 3 acres in Houston. Thanks to advice from Mississippi State University specialists and other producers, they have expanded their acreage, crops and markets in 2011.
“This is a learning experience, and we have had challenges with insects, weeds and diseases,” Earnest said. “We might conquer one thing this year, but next year, it will be something else.”
Prospect Produce Farm is located in the Sonora Community, south of Houston off of Highway 389. The Earnest family originally raised dairy cattle, then beef, and now 25 acres of their land is planted in peaches, blackberries, cantaloupes, watermelons and a wide range of vegetables.
Earnest and Moore were partners in a wood component business for 15 years, until overseas outsourcing undercut their products.
“We were looking for something we could produce that couldn’t be shipped over from other countries and put us out of business,” Moore said. “Everything we have is perishable, so we’ve got to be able to move it.”
Representatives from the farm travel to farmers’ markets in Tupelo, West Point, Columbus and Starkville on a regular basis. They also sell directly from the farm with walk-up business or call-ahead orders. A presence on Facebook also allows customers to keep up with Prospect Produce Farm’s crops.
Scott Cagle, Chickasaw County Extension director, said growers across the state work together to help each other succeed. Still, many of the challenges for south Mississippi growers are different from those in counties further north.
“In the past, most of the state’s commercial vegetable production was in south Mississippi, but we have added a lot of farms in this area in recent years,” Cagle said. “Producers are pretty spread out so there is not much direct competition. Extension helps connect producers in other communities.”
Additionally, growers have direct access to a wide range of MSU Extension specialists and researchers with the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station.
“We’ve got to have the advice from MSU to survive,” Earnest said. “We’ve called them for help on everything from spraying tomatoes to marketing the crop.”
Cagle has been instrumental in organizing the Northeast Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Association. More than 100 producers met for the first time in February and now receive a monthly newsletter from the Extension office. Other groups contributing to their success include the Mississippi Farm Bureau, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.
“We want to keep the lines of communication open so we all know what issues farms are coping with,” Cagle said. “It also helps for farmers to get pricing and market information from one another.”
Moore said their prices are not supposed to be competitive with large grocery stores.
“We are finding that customers want locally grown produce and are willing to pay for it, and they will pay even more not to have to pick their own,” he said. “We set our prices so we can afford to be here next year.”
Earnest said they are proudest of their 2011 blackberry crop, which was planted in March 2010. Blackberries are handled once, from the vine to the containers they are sold in. They are available fresh or frozen.
“We’ve had a lot of losses from sun, the drought, birds, insects and visiting Extension agents,” he said with a smile. “But I’ve already picked more than I thought I would this year.”