Not just whistlin’ ‘Dixie,’ here

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Alabama has seen its share of industrial recruitment coups in the past few years. In fact, 20 years ago the landing of Mercedes was the impetus that has catapulted us to the top of the nation in automobile manufacturing. Mercedes, Honda, Hyundai and the peripheral support manufacturing companies have placed us in the top three states in America when it comes to automobile manufacturing jobs.

The announcement of the mammoth Airbus plant in Mobile will create more than 1,000 jobs for the state. We will now build the largest airplanes in the world in the Heart of Dixie.

However, when all is said and done, Alabama’s most important industry is still agriculture. The economic impact of Alabama’s agriculture, forestry and related industries is staggering. The total output and employment impact of agriculture and related industries was more than $70 billion last year and accounts for more 580,000 jobs. Folks, that’s not just whistlin’ Dixie.

These numbers are comprised of agricultural industries, which consist of crops, livestock, timber, fisheries and include any food and forest product manufacturing. The figures also include goods and services from any collateral businesses related to agribusiness as well as local labor.

The reach of agriculture is amazing. On average, agricultural and forest products generate ten jobs per $1 million in direct sales. One out of every five jobs in the state is related to agriculture and forestry.

Besides the economic impact, they also provide social benefits and ecosystem services that enhance the quality of life in Alabama but are not a part of the economic figures previously quoted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services reports the output and employment impacts of hunting, sport fishing and wildlife watching totals $3.6 billion and more than 40,000 jobs.

The largest agribusiness contributor in Alabama is poultry and eggs. It is number one and contributes $3.8 billion to our economy. It is followed by the cattle industry at $393 million. Surprisingly, greenhouses, nurseries and floriculture production come in third with $237 billion. The nursery business has grown exponentially in recent years, especially around Mobile. Cotton holds fourth place at $138 million, followed by soybeans at $123 million. Grain farming adds $117 million and catfish farming accounts for $108 million.

To illuminate how big poultry and egg production is in Alabama, it accounts for 66 percent of the $4.8 billion total agribusiness sales in the state. It is followed by cattle at 8.4 percent, greenhouses and nurseries at 5.1 percent, Cotton at 3 percent, soybeans and other grains at 2.6 percent and peanuts at 2.1 percent.

Forestry continues to be a mainstay of our agricultural economy. It also breeds our state leaders. Both Gov. Robert Bentley and Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan grew up in families that made their livelihoods as sawmill owners. Bentley grew up working at a sawmill in Shelby County. McMillan’s family ran a sawmill operation in Baldwin County.

McMillan is doing an admirable job as Agriculture Commissioner. He grew up at a time when Baldwin County was a rural county known as the potato growing capital of Alabama. He remembers the days when Baldwin County schools would close to allow students to help harvest the potato crops.

As boys, little did McMillan or Bentley know that their beloved home counties of Baldwin and Shelby would evolve into the fastest growing suburban bedroom areas in the state. Baldwin and Shelby counties are now two of the largest and most Republican counties in the state.