By SONNY SCOTT
I constantly see the “fertile soils of the Gulf Coastal Plain” reference in popular publications. I cringe, because isn’t true. In fact Mississippi contains only two areas of extraordinarily productive land – the delta and the black belt prairie. Otherwise, our land presents problems, whether susceptibility to erosion (Pontotoc Ridge amp& Brown Belt), high acidity and poor drainage (Flatwoods), or extreme leaching (Piney Woods).
No other institution has done more to transform our area than Aamp&M College, aka, Mississippi State. Its researchers discovered how to treat the land and which crops can be grown to make marginal land productive. Its Extension Service convinced farmers to try it. Drive from Houston to Grenada and see the miracle of land once considered good only for sweet gum brakes and breeding cottonmouth moccasins now a blooming garden of plenty.
This area has never had an advantage in natural resources. Except for the prairie, our land is not exceptionally fertile, and timber resources were more difficult to harvest. Modern transportation was slow to reach the area (1905 before the Mamp&O connected the county seat to the rail network, and a WPA project connected us to Memphis by paved road). The area is not good for beef or dairy…too much water, unhealthy climate. The feedlots pay a premium for high plains feeders, and Wisconsin dairymen make a profit at margins that bankrupt Mississippi dairymen. The only thing that’s kept us in the game is the tenacity of our workers, and the adaptability of our businessmen.
As people left the farm (or the farm left the people), manufacturing took up the slack, relying on unskilled labor whose hunger drove them to accept the disciplined environment of the shops and mills. Andrew Lytle’s pithy phrase, “the pizen snake of industrialism” captured very well the unease that some of us felt about the new order, but there was no going back. The day of every man sitting under his own vine and eating from his own fig tree was past – if it ever existed.
We Scots-Irish are noted for our independent streak – “cussedness,” some call it. After watching Robert the Bruce and other noblemen betray William Wallace, our ancestors became skeptical of the manner and motives of their economic and social “betters.” This is a two-edged attribute: we don’t cotton to unions, but neither do we like close supervision. As my son commented on unionization: “Hell, I’ve got a family to feed. I don’t want some @#$!! telling ME that I can’t work just ’cause HE’S unhappy.”
Our challenge is to equip our youth with fundamental skills, and to imbue them with the habit of looking for a better and more efficient way to do things – whether it’s manufacturing, distribution, or providing services. The future belongs to those who constantly improve, who never rest on their laurels.
One who tries to freeze-frame the economic world to maximize or prolong a temporary advantage – whether by protective tariff, restrictive taxation, or unreasonable immigration policies is deluded. The business or trade that is not aggressive in seeking ways to improve, in anticipating market trends, and in a relentless drive to improve is destined to fail. No farmer or logger does the same thing he did ten years ago, and no retailer. Every single industry is in a constant state of change, continually re-inventing itself. But at the same time, several things are constant: efficient use of resources, attention to detail, taking advantage of those areas in which we have comparative advantage. The industry that survives will be the one that not only works harder, but also works smarter. In short, no factor of production is more important than human resources. Those who keep harping the education and training of our youth are spot on.
Our kids grow up not knowing how to fill out job applications, without knowing how to introduce and present themselves, without the understanding that their initial jobs are not something to which they are entitled. In years gone by, an informal alliance among family, school, and church imbued youth with a sense of purpose and responsibility. Unfortunately, this tripod has lost one, and sometimes two legs. Not only do our business methods have to change with the times, but also so do our methods of acculturating the young. We need voices of reason from respected community leaders who have demonstrated a grasp of reality to counter the fantasies of those educated beyond their intelligence. If those voices are “the elites,” so be it.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.