Company deemed ‘future of education’ for rural schools to falter without cash infusion, founder says

Company deemed ‘future of education’ for rural schools to falter without cash infusion, founder says

An education company that helps bring free college-level science courses to poor, rural public schools, many in the Mississippi Delta, will lose federal funding after the Biden Administration did not renew its grant last year. 

The Global Teaching Project has received more than $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education to support its work offering Advanced Placement science courses to nearly 40 high-poverty schools.

Over 1,000 have enrolled in the project’s classes, according to its founder, former tax attorney Matt Dolan, who says he has put more than six figures into the project since starting it in 2017. Districts could offer AP courses that they never had before. 

Global Teaching Project’s “blended” instructional model — online course content taught by in-class teachers who are supported by virtual STEM tutors from universities such as Harvard — was even praised by school choice and school voucher proponent Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration’s education secretary. Experts have heralded this approach as “the future of education, especially for rural schools,” and the Global Teaching Project has drawn the attention of entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban.

It’s also a model that has the interest of powerful Mississippi Republicans. Senate Appropriations Chair Briggs Hopson told the Magnolia Tribune earlier this legislative session that he hopes to expand virtual learning for schools that struggle to find qualified teachers. 

Matt Dolan, center, who founded the Global Teaching Project in 2017, talks with students during the initiative’s Advanced STEM Jackson Program at Jackson State University earlier this year. Credit: Courtesy Global Teaching Project

But the Global Teaching Project’s growth could falter without more financial support when its federal Education Innovation and Research grant expires this summer as, Dolan said, a majority of that funding went to the program costs. The minimum needed to operate this coming year is $1.2 million, Dolan said. 

The Mississippi Public School Consortium for Educational Access, a coalition of rural public school districts, was technically the recipient of federal funds, but Dolan said the Global Teaching Project was the driver of the initiative, a relationship that grant reviewers in 2019 said could be clarified. 

“My guess is they’ve never seen such a thing where somebody not only develops and implements the program, but they provide the money,” Dolan said. “That’s what we told the school districts when we first started in 2017. We said we want to do this, and we’re not asking you to give us a penny.” 

Last year, the Biden Administration awarded more than $275 million in funding to projects in 20 states. Projects in three states — California, Massachusetts and Texas — received almost as much funding as the remaining 17.

Without the project, the Quitman County School District would not be able to offer AP Computer Science, said Baxter Swearengen, a special-education teacher who acts as a “facilitator” for the courses. 

Neither would the Holmes County School District, said Iftikhar Azeem, the science department chair at Holmes County Central High School. He teaches AP Physics and AP Computer Science. 

That’s because these districts, which have a small tax base, can’t compete with other counties and even states that pay teachers much better, or with other science-professions.

“The very fundamental thing is funding,” Azeem said. “I’ve taught several hundred physics students, but nobody came back as a teacher because when they do get a masters in science, they get a better job. … Why should they work as a teacher?”

Both districts struggle to retain college-educated graduates amid population losses since 2010. 

“A place like Holmes County, Mississippi, has fewer residents today than it did when the Civil War broke out,” Dolan said. “That teachers are not moving there is symptomatic of broader issues about exodus from these communities.” 

The Global Teaching Project helps fill this gap, Dolan said, by providing schools with “turnkey courses,” as well as textbooks and workbooks that students don’t have to pay for. And teachers like Swearengen and Azeem are offered stipends for professional development courses. 

“We are paying our teachers, not the other way around,” Dolan said. “We are providing services to our students. They never pay us a penny. Their parents never pay us a penny. We’ve never used a dollar of state or local tax dollars.” 

More than 90% of students who take Global Teaching Project’s classes go to college, though Dolan couldn’t provide the exact number, he said, due to limitations collecting data from public schools. But when students get to college, they are prepared, he said. 

“Where we make a difference, and here I am confident, is where they go to college, how well they do in college, how prepared they are in college, their persistence and scholarships,” Dolan said. 

Dolan said he has partial data on pass-rates on the AP national exams for Global Teaching Project students and that the pass-rate for AP Computer Science tends to be higher than AP Physics. A majority of students do not earn a qualifying score for college credit on the exams, which is a three or higher, Dolan said. 

“By taking this exam, you are part of an elite group,” Dolan tells his students. 

Both teachers said their classes’ exam scores aren’t as high as they wish due to a myriad of factors. 

In Quitman County, students don’t struggle with the curriculum, Swearengen said, because the Global Teaching Project provides tutors from Ivy League schools. It’s more about attention: Swearengen said his students tend to miss class for major athletic events. Cellphones are another distraction. 

But the biggest struggle, Swearengen said, is technology. His district has limited bandwidth. During end-of-year testing, only so many students can use a computer at one time, he said. Sometimes, all nine of his students have to crowd around one computer.

That’s a huge reason his AP Computer Science pass-rate isn’t where Swearengen wants it to be. 

“We have so many students on computers to where the technology person will just shut the entire network off,” he said. 

High school students and teachers gather at Jackson State University for the Global Teaching Project’s Advanced STEM Jackson Program earlier this year. Credit: Courtesy Global Teaching Project

Still, Swearengen said the Global Teaching Project has benefited his students in ways that can’t be quantified. Through the project, they have an opportunity to experience college-level curriculum and visit campuses like Jackson State University. 

Their self-regard increases, he said. 

“They get to spend a night in a hotel room when they’ve never been,” he said. “They get to go to conferences and eat different food. And talk about computers. It’s just so much. It’s a bigger picture than I think anybody could have imagined.” 

That was Demeria Moore’s experience when, as a junior and senior at McAdams Attendance Center in Attala County, she took AP Physics and AP Computer Science, the latter course she was able to claim college credit for at Holmes Community College. 

Though it was lonely to be the only student in the AP Computer Science course, Moore said participating in the class helped her understand the “why” behind the world. 

“When I look out the window and I see the leaves, how they’re full of chlorophyll and the sun will allow them to have energy, and how that energy can get transferred to me and that just creates the circle of life,” Moore said. “All those little things have some type of science or math attached to it. It all just blew my mind.” 

Moore said the Global Teaching Project also provided a sense of community at her school where teacher turnover is high. McAdams is a junior-senior high school and, by the time she graduated, all her teachers from seventh grade had left.

“I had some really good teachers and even the students who may have just maybe caused a few issues in class, even they would listen to these teachers. And I just wish they would have stayed so everybody could have a better learning experience,” she said. 

Dolan said one of the successes of the Global Teaching Project also comes with irony. His initiative can help teachers become AP certified, which can lead them away from high-poverty school districts to ones that can pay better. 

“We recognize there are certain issues that we cannot affect,” Dolan said. “We don’t determine who is in the building, but we will serve whoever is there.” 

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These Republicans wanted a Medicaid work requirement but couldn’t get approval. So they got creative.

When the North Carolina legislative session ends, Jim Burgin, a conservative Republican state senator who serves as chair of his state’s Senate Health Care Committee, will go back to his daily life as a businessman.

The owner of an insurance company and a partner in a local car dealership group, Burgin fully understands the virtue of hard work. That’s why when Medicaid expansion, the federal program that 10 states including Mississippi have refused to pass, came up for debate in his legislature over the past few years, he wasn’t immediately sold.

“I don’t think we ought to have any kind of government program that people stay on the rest of their lives,” Burgin told Mississippi Today in an interview this week. “Like most of my Republican colleagues, I wanted to put a work requirement in. But we realized the feds would never approve it, so we had to think about what we really wanted to do as it related to work.”

Many Mississippi Republican lawmakers currently face the same dilemma. Though Medicaid expansion is being seriously considered here for the first time, Senate Republicans, led by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, appear convinced that the only way the state should expand Medicaid is if a work requirement is in place. But with the federal government having shot down 13 states’ previous efforts to implement a work requirement, Mississippi Today reached out to leaders in North Carolina, the most recent Republican-led state to expand, to see how they came to an agreement.

READ MORE: Mississippi lawmakers look to other states’ Medicaid expansions. Is North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia worth copying?

Burgin and his colleagues, knowing the feds wouldn’t allow the work requirement, went to the drawing board to determine if they could come up with a Medicaid expansion bill that still promoted work without requiring it. They started with a “trigger law,” of sorts, to mandate that if the federal government ever changed their policy on allowing states to implement a work requirement, North Carolina would move immediately to adopt one. They also added a separate trigger that allowed the state to immediately drop out of the expansion program if Congress ever defunded it or changed its funding structure.

They also developed some creative ideas for spending the additional federal dollars the state would receive from the expansion program that were designed to promote work. Shortly after they expanded Medicaid, the North Carolina lawmakers designated hundreds of millions in expansion “signing bonus” funds on mental health reform. The state’s mental health system was in crisis with major funding concerns, so Republicans appropriated $835 million — all money they got from the feds to expand Medicaid — to rebuild the crumbled system.

“That’s going to help so many hospitals and law enforcement officers who often had nothing to do with mentally ill people but take them to emergency rooms, whether those people had health insurance or not,” Burgin said. “Hospitals will never have to treat or pay for care for people in those situations in ERs ever again.”

Additionally, North Carolina Republicans in the coming weeks will work on getting the federal government to grant a waiver to spend federal Medicaid dollars on providing free community college — and workforce skills training — to North Carolinians enrolled in the Medicaid expansion program. Additionally, some Republicans want to add child care vouchers to that list of offerings.

“This is all to get people jobs and to keep them working and ultimately to get them off Medicaid,” Burgin said. “Even though it can’t be a requirement, we’re promoting work. We want to make it easier and better for people to get work that they won’t want to stay on Medicaid. They’ll want a job and hopefully eventually get on a group health plan through their employer.”

So what ultimately convinced Burgin, who wanted the work requirement all along, to move forward on expansion even without it?

“Billions of dollars,” he said plainly. “Look, I’m a business guy. I don’t spend money, I invest money. I looked at (Medicaid expansion) as a great investment. I had a fiduciary responsibility to my constituents to take that money. So we wrote a bill that said that if the feds changed the work requirement, if they change anything, we can add it here or opt out of our program altogether.

“I just couldn’t turn down billions of dollars that we needed in so many areas,” Burgin said. “And we get to spend that on a wide variety of things, and all of it is designed to get people across this state working.”

READ MORE: Mississippi leaving more than $1 billion per year on table by rejecting Medicaid expansion

North Carolina state Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, speaks to reporters following the House Health Committee meeting at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. Lambeth is a primary sponsor of a bill that the committee approved that would expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults through the 2010 Affordable Care Act. (AP Photos/Gary D. Robertson)

Republican state Rep. Donny Lambeth was the primary author of what became North Carolina’s Medicaid expansion program.

For years before an expansion program actually passed, Lambeth filed numerous expansion bills that included work requirements.

“I was a big advocate for work requirements because, well, I felt like it was just one of those things,” Lambeth said. “We shouldn’t want to just add more people to Medicaid rolls. You have to figure out how to help them and get them off Medicaid and into the workforce. But when we talked to people in Washington, it was obvious there was no way, if we went through all the trouble to get votes and get it passed, we would get a work requirement.”

READ MORE: How Medicaid expansion could have saved Tim’s leg — and changed his life

So Lambeth, like Burgin, went to the drawing board. They wrote into their expansion plan a provision similar to red-state Montana: State government agencies would work with private partners who had experience with job training to create a program that would pay for Medicaid enrollees to get job training. They couldn’t require people to participate, but they could make it worth their while.

“We looked at what other Republican states that had expanded had done,” Lambeth said. “What we came up with in lieu of the work requirement was an optional jobs training program. The idea was that even though you’ve got the vast majority of people on Medicaid working, they’re working in low-income jobs. They couldn’t afford health insurance even though they worked.  The theory is that if you take advantage of expansion dollars from the federal government with a job training program like this, you can go back and further your education. You can then get a better job, have a higher standard of living, get off Medicaid and be able to afford your health insurance.”

Peg O’Connell, a health care advocate and consultant who for several years led North Carolina’s push to expand Medicaid, explained how the jobs training program worked in Montana before her state included it in its program.

“A man had been a hit-or-miss carpenter and really wanted a commercial drivers license,” O’Connell said. “So the Montana caseworker under their expansion program helped get him his CDL. They paid for him to take the classes as well as lodging when he had to travel to take his exams, and they even bought him a pair of work boots. This man is now doing what he wants to be doing, he’s got full-time employment with health insurance, and he has worked himself off the Medicaid program. That’s the idea behind our program here.”

Lambeth, like Burgin, is a small business owner. He owns a logistics contracting company, and he “can’t afford to offer my employees health insurance,” he said.

“Are there some quote-unquote deadbeats, people who are not working, playing off the system? Sure,” Lambeth said. “But we were able to identify the farmers in the east part of the state, small, mom-and-pop businesses that were growing at significant rates but couldn’t quite afford to offer health insurance, hard-working people who desperately wanted and needed health insurance but couldn’t afford it. We saw that the vast majority of these people are working, and the ones who weren’t working, we felt like if we could get them training or education and child care, that would help get them off Medicaid.

“If we’re really all about getting people working, then let’s figure out ways to work within the system, draw down those billions of dollars, and use them to get them working,” he continued. “It was really that simple.”

READ MORE: Gov. Roy Cooper, the most recent state leader to expand Medicaid, has advice for Mississippi lawmakers

Burgin and Lambeth both supported work requirements but saw they wouldn’t get approval from the federal government. They listened to their constituents, they considered the heart of their desire to get North Carolinians working and they found creative solutions.

As Mississippi lawmakers consider Medicaid expansion over the next few days, what advice might the North Carolina Republicans offer to their counterparts here in the Magnolia State?

“You tell any of the hardest nos, the most conservative ones, that if they have any doubts, give them my number. My cell is 919-207-7263,” Burgin said. “I’ll be happy to answer any question they may have and talk to them about why this is so beneficial. I’ve been tracking Mississippi. I testified the other day to Kansas lawmakers. We’ve already talked to folks in Georgia, Florida, Kansas and now Mississippi. All of these holdout states are looking at the same thing saying, ‘We’ve put it off. Why did you do it?’ For me and my Republican colleagues, it came down to a business decision. How could we, in good faith, leave billions on the table?”

Lambeth answered the question with an anecdote.

“I heard from just dozens and dozens of North Carolinians while we were debating this,” Lambeth said. “But I got one letter, in particular, from a Christmas tree farmer in Ash County. She couldn’t afford health insurance, and she was worried they were going to lose their farm because of out-of-pocket medical bills they had.

“These are real people. They’re not the traditional Medicaid where they’re poor and not trying to improve their lives. They are hard-working people just not able to afford health insurance. I promise the average Mississippian is not much different than the average North Carolinian in that way. Why would we be in the positions we’re in and not help them? I mean really, why?”

READ MORE: The Christian argument for Medicaid expansion

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Marshall County’s only ER to close this month after mix-up with federal government

As an internal medicine doctor, Dr. Kenneth Williams knows the importance of continuity of care. That’s one of several reasons why the impending closure of the Holly Springs hospital’s emergency room – and its precarious financial position as a whole – pains him so.

After receiving special designation from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to operate the hospital as an emergency room-only and close its inpatient services, the federal government pulled the status less than a year later. Now, the hospital must close its ER and face the expensive and daunting process of reopening and becoming relicensed as an acute care hospital. 

“At the end of the day, who suffers” from the emergency room’s closure and reduced services at the hospital? “My patients,” said Williams, who is co-owner and chief executive officer of Alliance Healthcare System in Holly Springs, a town of just under 7,000 residents about 50 miles from Memphis. 

The news of the ER’s closure comes less than three months after state lawmakers approved a $350 million deal to bring a battery plant to Marshall County that’s expected to create over 2,000 jobs over the next few years. But the county’s only hospital is struggling mightily to stay open, placing continuity of care out of reach for some people in the community. 

Spokespeople from PACCAR and Daimler Truck, two of the companies involved in the battery plant, declined to comment for the story. Representatives from Cummins did not respond to Mississippi Today’s request for comment. 

The emergency room entrance is seen at Holly Springs Alliance Hospital in Holly Springs, Miss., on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. The federal government has rescinded the hospital’s rural emergency status. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Recently, one of Williams’ patients he sees at the clinic had an emergency and was taken to an ER outside Marshall County. Williams knew the woman had a severe UTI and was allergic to an antibiotic called cephalosporin. 

But the other ER didn’t have her history, and she was given the drug, he said.

“She had a severe reaction and had to go to rehab. She almost died,” he said. “Something that simple means something. If she had come to our facility, it’s already in our records that she can’t take cephalosporin.”

Rural hospitals in Mississippi are struggling to stay afloat. One report puts 29% of the state’s rural hospitals at immediate risk of closure, and 62% are losing money on patient services. 

Research has found that Medicaid expansion has a positive impact on hospitals, including via a reduction in uncompensated care. And while expansion is not a silver bullet, median operating margins in rural hospitals were higher in expansion states than non-expansion states, according to KFF. 

Williams said Alliance incurs between $800,000 to $1 million a year in uncompensated care, or care the hospital provides for which no payment was received – often as a result of patients who are uninsured.

Williams said he’s “amazed” lawmakers are finally discussing the possibility, but damage has already been done to his hospital and the state as a whole.

“This state could be in so much better shape health care wise,” he said, noting the decision not to expand has been a “disservice” to communities like his.

Tim Moore, the former longtime head of the Mississippi Hospital Association, said expanding Medicaid would put significantly more money towards hospitals’ bottom line through a reduction in uncompensated care, and there’s “not a legitimate argument” against full expansion.

“Even if your concern is not for that individual that needs health care, you should have some concern for your local hospital that’s trying to take care of folks,” said Moore. 

READ MORE: Negotiations begin: Where do House, Senate, governor stand on Medicaid expansion? Is there room for compromise?

Without the boost from Medicaid expansion, the hospital applied for a new federal designation that aims to keep rural hospitals open – though it requires the discontinuation of inpatient services.

Last year, the financially struggling Alliance received rural emergency hospital status, which allowed it to operate as an emergency room-only facility and receive monthly payments and increased reimbursements from Medicare. But on April 1, after Alliance HealthCare System had already laid off staff and shut down its inpatient services to comply with the requirements of the new designation, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rescinded the designation.

An empty emergency room in Holly Springs Alliance Hospital in Holly Springs, Miss., on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. The federal government has rescinded the hospital’s rural emergency status. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Hospitals must either be a critical access hospital or a hospital with 50 or fewer beds in a rural county as of Dec. 27, 2020, to be considered for rural emergency status. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services eventually determined Alliance is too close to Memphis, Williams and State Health Officer Dan Edney said.

The federal agency first inadvertently granted the designation, according to a letter it sent Williams, then claimed the hospital failed to reapply for rural status by the deadline given. 

But Williams and the hospital’s counsel Quentin Whitwell said there was no formal reapplication process that they could determine despite back-and-forth communications with agency officials over four months.

READ MORE: Under a new program, rural hospitals could get more money – but they have to end inpatient care

Williams said the federal government’s actions, in combination with the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid, has done “irreparable harm” to the hospital. 

Now, after closing two of its floors, the hospital has to start the long process of again becoming licensed as an acute care hospital, which includes major building repairs. 

“We’re spending a ton of money that we don’t have … just to get our old designation back,” Williams said.

And it notified the state Department of Health it will close its emergency department – which Williams says costs around $1 million a year just to staff with one around-the-clock physician – beginning April 15.

Mississippi Today’s Eric Shelton contributed to this story.

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Trouble in the wood basket: How a global push for renewable energy took advantage of rural Mississippi

When Georgia Pacific closed its paper mill in 2008, it gutted the local Gloster economy.

“It was devastating,” said the town’s mayor, Jerry Norwood. “We went on life support at that point.”

The mill closing meant the loss of 400 jobs, Norwood said, making it by far the top employer in a town of just 900 people. Despite being the mayor, Norwood knows how hard it is to find work close by. His last gig was at a chemical plant in Geismer, Louisiana, a three-hour round trip from his Gloster home.

“The workforce is probably the biggest obstacle (to attracting new industry),” Norwood told Mississippi Today. “We don’t have enough people to fill those (skilled) positions, electricians and stuff like that. And we don’t have a school here in Gloster. The school closed in 1989. People don’t want to move in here if their kids can’t get a quality education.”

A man walks downtown in Gloster, Miss., on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Some residents of the town are upset because of the industrial pollution caused by Drax Group, a U.K.-based energy company that operates a wood pellet production plant in the town. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

In the last decade, towns like Gloster turned to what they saw as a new hope: the emerging wood pellet industry. While the industry is now grappling with a variety of environmental objections, the state and local governments have invested millions of dollars in wood pellets, through tax exemptions and other incentives, in an attempt to stem rural disinvestment.

In 2022, the world’s largest wood pellet producer came to another Mississippi town, Lucedale, 160 miles east of Gloster. The town was in a similar economic predicament: Census numbers show just 29% of working-age residents there are employed, compared to 60% on the national level, and over a third of the town lives below the poverty line. 

So when George County’s economic development director, Ken Flanagan, learned that the company, called Enviva, was bringing one of the largest new wood pellet operations in the world to Lucedale, he took a moment to let it sink in. 

“I never really had that, you know, winning the national championship moment where you get the trophy and jump around,” Flanagan said. “It was just a big sigh of relief.”

Lucedale beat out a number of other places chomping at the bit to house the new plant, he said, with some offering as much as 95% off the company’s tax bill. 

An aerial shot of Enviva’s wood pellet plant in Lucedale. Credit: Enviva

Enviva brought with it 103 full-time positions and 200 more contracting jobs, something to behold for a place with just under 700 working residents. While Lucedale is a small town, it’s in the heart of one of the top timber-producing regions of the world, known as America’s “wood basket,” which made it an ideal spot for a company like Enviva.

Since opening about two years ago, the impact of Enviva has transpired as Flanagan hoped: Most of the jobs have gone to local residents, he said, and even with a two-thirds tax discount the county gave up, Enviva still paid $1 million in revenue last year. 

“The fact that we were able to bring timber back to George County, we knew early on that this is going to be a big, big, deal,” he said.

Excited by the economic promise of the wood pellet world, and what it could mean to struggling rural areas, Mississippi officials have agreed to give companies like Enviva over $24 million in incentives over the last decade – a figure that’s likely much higher due to unquantified tax exemptions. 

But in the process, the wood pellet industry has turned parts of rural Mississippi into venues for a climate and public health debate that’s traversing the globe, one that people in Gloster are all too familiar with. 

Credit: Bethany Atkinson

Last April in London, Gloster native Krystal Martin stood up to speak in a room full of shareholders and executives for Drax, a United Kingdom-based power company that makes wood pellets over 4,000 miles away in Martin’s hometown. It was a private meeting, but Martin got in as a proxy thanks to an activist shareholder. 

The company was in the middle of an impressive fiscal performance: In 2023, Drax posted $1.5 billion in profits, on top of billions in subsidies from the British government.

In recent years, countries in Europe and Asia have gradually injected wood pellets into their energy portfolios as a way of meeting their carbon reduction goals. The trend is based on the belief, which was laid out in the European Union’s 2009 renewable energy directive, that burning wood instead of coal will help reduce emissions.

Credit: Bethany Atkinson

With a growing global demand for wood pellets, Drax and Enviva have expanded operations in forest-abundant regions like the Southeast. And in Mississippi, the industry has found one of its most eager suitors.

The Lucedale plant, for instance, was widely touted as the largest wood pellet operation in the world when it opened in 2022. To lure Enviva there, the state and county governments committed an estimated $20 million in grants and tax breaks, public records show. Enviva almost raked in another $46 million in state and local incentives for a new Mississippi plant, the Stone County Enterprise reported. But financial struggles have put the new project on hold as Enviva recently declared Chapter 11 Bankruptcy to reorganize its debts. It’s stock price as of Friday stood at 42 cents per share.

Overall, as of 2023, Mississippi had permitted production of over 2 million tons of pellets per year. In the South, where most American pellets come from, only one other state – North Carolina – had more capacity. 

But last year at Drax’s shareholders meeting in London, Martin had traveled to tell everyone about what’s gone wrong with the wood pellet business. During a Q&A portion of the meeting, she grabbed the microphone and addressed the companies’ leaders.

“We have become a sacrifice zone, and we feel like you don’t care about us as people,” she said, choking up as she spoke. “You are willing to pollute our community and extract our natural resources for your own economic gain. So I came all this way from Gloster, Mississippi, to ask you: What role are you prepared to play in addressing the health issues and air pollution that you continue to inflict in our community?”

Krystal Martin speaking at Drax’s annual shareholders meeting in London.

It didn’t start out bad. When Drax’s facility opened in 2016, Gloster residents were pleased to see a new job creator come to town. 

“When you’re a small rural community, and they announce a business is coming, most people get excited,” Martin recalled to Mississippi Today. 

State officials were excited about it, too. Then-Gov. Phil Bryant even shouted out the new wood pellet plant in one of his State of the State speeches. To bring Drax to Gloster, Mississippi shelled out $2.8 million in grants, in addition to several tax exemptions, which include: full, 10-year corporate income and corporate franchise tax exemptions, as well as a 10-year sales and use tax exemption estimated at about $1.5 million, according to the Mississippi Development Authority. The company also received a 10-year local property tax exemption.

Due to confidentiality laws protecting taxpayers, Mississippi Today couldn’t accurately quantify the full value of those exemptions. For reference, though, Drax estimates it contributed $5 million in state and local revenue in 2023 alone, even with those incentives.

The local revenue has allowed the city to keep utility rates low, Norwood said, emphasizing the importance of making services affordable in a place with a high poverty rate. 

“Thank God for Drax, we have money in those departments where we can do that,” he said.

Drax’s overall economic impact to Amite County, where Gloster is, was $160 million in 2023, company spokesperson Michelli Martin told Mississippi Today. 

But it’s the facility’s environmental impact that has drawn more attention. 

In 2018, Drax alerted the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality that it had underestimated its release of toxic chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, since the plant opened in 2016, and was over three times the legal limit. It wasn’t until 2021, almost five years after the releases began, that Drax finally came into compliance over its VOC emissions. In 2020, MDEQ fined the facility $2.5 million, one of the largest Clean Air Act penalties in state history.

Drax Group, a U.K.-based energy company that operates a wood pellet production plant in Gloster, has caused concern in the small Mississippi town due to its industrial pollution. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Shortly after, Drax slipped up again. Testing from 2022 showed that Amite BioEnergy, the name of the Gloster facility, was releasing 50% over its permitted limit of another, more dangerous group of chemicals called Hazardous Air Pollutants, or HAPs. MDEQ cited Drax for a violation in 2023, and is now negotiating a new penalty with the company. 

The company also miscalculated its emissions from two wood pellet plants in Louisiana, for which the state fined Drax $3.2 million in 2022. Throughout the Southeast, regulators have fined wood pellet facilities 14 times for air emission violations since 2012, totaling $6.6 million in penalties. 

Krystal Martin and other residents were quick to connect Drax’s violations to health issues among those living near the plant. Martin’s mom, for instance, had just started going to the hospital in 2020 for an array of respiratory issues when they heard about the $2.5 million fine. 

Another resident, Shelia Dobbins, lived about a half mile from the plant until 2022. Dobbins told Mississippi Today that in 2017, she fainted during a doctor’s visit. After an extended hospital stay, doctors diagnosed her with COPD, and since then Dobbins has had to carry an oxygen tank with her wherever she goes. In the years after, she’s watched as similar symptoms have plagued her family and neighbors.

“I’m on oxygen… my husband was on oxygen, he’s deceased. My brother-in-law was on oxygen, he’s deceased. My sister is on oxygen right now. All these houses are right there together, around that plant,” she said.  “They need to own up to what they did.”

Three other residents who have lived near the plant told Mississippi Today they’ve also experienced respiratory issues since Drax arrived, and Martin said there were many more.

No conclusive evidence exists connecting Drax’s emissions to any of the aforementioned health symptoms. Norwood, the town’s mayor, was dubious aout the plant having anything to do with the health issues. MDEQ Executive Director Chris Wells told Mississippi Today that, just because Drax violated air emissions limits, doesn’t mean the company has harmed the public’s health. 

Shelia Dobbins, from left, Myrtis Woodard, Jane Martin and Mamie Bentley take a brief moment to themselves after discussing their health issues in Gloster, Miss., Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

“God sees all sin the same,” Wells said. “In the environmental regulatory world, there are gradients of sin … I know that some of the folks in the Gloster community have expressed concerns about their health, and I understand why. What we've tried to tell them is, they are equating a violation with a health impact. I'm not saying there hasn't been. What I told them is that we haven't seen any evidence of that.”

Connecting any health symptoms to any one source of pollution is a tall order. But Erica Walker, a Jackson native who teaches epidemiology at Brown University, believes her ongoing research will determine if there is such a connection. 

Last August, Walker set up air monitors at different homes around Gloster to collect air quality levels. The preliminary data, she said, shows daily averages below federal standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. But those averages, Walker added, mask a worrisome trend: At night, when most people are home and near the air monitors, the pollutant levels are “magnitudes” higher than EPA standards. 

Credit: Nina Franzen Lee, Doctoral Student in Epidemiology at Brown University School of Public Health And Community Noise Lab at Brown SPH
Credit: Nina Franzen Lee, Doctoral Student in Epidemiology at Brown University School of Public Health And Community Noise Lab at Brown SPH

Walker also pointed to high levels of “noise pollution” that come from the plant, which operates through the night. Irritation from loud noises can build stress, she explained, which over time can increase a person’s risk of symptoms like cardiovascular diseases.

“A hundred percent of the people we’ve talked to in Gloster have expressed that (the noise) is something they can’t control,” she said. “They hear it all the time, at random times of night. Even people that live a distance away from (the plant).” 

Walker said it won’t be until August, when she’ll have a year’s worth of data, before she can officially compare her measurements to EPA standards and then start to narrow down the possible causes of residents’ health issues. 

A video showing the sounds from Drax's facility echoing around nearby homes.

But regardless of whether Drax is at the root of those issues, Walker said it’s a huge concern that officials allowed a wood pellet facility, which are known to release toxic chemicals harmful to residents, to be built so close to residents in an area with already poor health outcomes like Gloster.

“We want to make sure we aren’t additionally burdening already burdened communities,” Walker said. “When I first went to Gloster and saw where the wood pellet plant was, like literally in the middle of the community, like a real blastoma in the middle of this community that expanded, I was like, ‘Who approved this?’

“There are people that live right around (the Drax plant). If we would’ve taken seriously the environmental justice philosophy, I don’t even think that plant would have been approved. I can just say that plant would not be approved to go sit in Fondren, or the nice fancy part of Madison.”

When asked about the company’s emission violations, Drax reiterates it was the one to tell MDEQ it was out of compliance. 

“What the news articles that covered this don’t mention is that the emissions matter discussed is a direct result of how we continually monitor operations to ensure compliance with all regulatory requirements,” Martin, the company’s spokesperson, said in an email. “The potential issue was identified by Drax through our own on-site monitoring, and we shared the data with the (MDEQ) to proactively address it. Moreover, Drax is constantly evaluating new ways to enhance our operations as technology and best industry practices evolve over time.”  

But the immediate impacts from emissions are only part of the environmental debate going on around wood pellets. More and more, scientists are questioning the very premise that the industry was born out of.

Jimmy Brown discusses the proximity of the Drax Group and the homes of residents in Gloster, Miss., Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

“There’s a pretty large scientific consensus that burning trees for power production is not beneficial to the climate,” said David Carr, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center for nearly 40 years.

When accounting for the loss of trees that sequester carbon naturally, wood pellet production actually increases the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, Carr said. 

“Most of those studies show that, for the next three decades to 100 years, you’re going to have more carbon in the atmosphere from burning trees than if you just continue burning fossil fuels,” he said, citing a study the center commissioned looking specifically at Drax’s plants in Mississippi and Louisiana. “The reason is that you’re cutting down trees that are currently storing carbon, and you’re putting that carbon immediately into the atmosphere. You’re not going to recapture that carbon until they grow back to an equal level of carbon storage.”  

A 2018 report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made the same conclusion. 

Wood is in place at Drax Group in Gloster, Miss., on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Some Gloster residents are concerned with the industrial pollution caused by the company that produces wood pellets in the town. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Part of the discrepancy between skeptics and those in the industry is over what kind of wood gets used for pellets. Companies like Drax and Enviva maintain their pellets come largely from leftover wood that other businesses, like sawmills, can’t use, as well as from thinnings, which is when a forester removes smaller trees to let larger ones grow.

But in a letter to President Biden and other leaders in 2021, over 500 scientists from around the world argued that even using the “low-grade” wood those companies rely on creates a “carbon debt.”

“Regrowing trees and displacement of fossil fuels may eventually pay off this carbon debt, but regrowth takes time the world does not have to solve climate change,” the letter reads. “As numerous studies have shown, this burning of wood will increase warming for decades to centuries. That is true even when the wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas.”

It’s unclear what the growing public opinion against wood pellets means for its future in Mississippi. It’s especially unclear for Enviva after its recent bankruptcy declaration. Flanagan, the economic development director in George County, said operations at the Lucedale plant have gone on as usual and he hasn’t heard any sign of that changing. 

Jerry White, former Amite County NAACP president, demands clean air in Gloster, Miss., during a protest at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, March 28, 2024. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Enviva declined to provide any comment for this story. 

Activists around the world, like Merry Dickinson in the U.K., are working to steer politicians against approving new subsidies for wood pellets. 

Dickinson lives about 20 miles from Drax’s plant in Yorkshire, which is where the pellets from Gloster get shipped to and used for energy production. She was at the same shareholder meeting last April where Martin gave her testimony about the health issues in Gloster. 

“Learning about the huge amounts of subsidies that are coming from our energy bills to support (Drax) and then learning about what’s happening to the communities like in Gloster, Mississippi, around the Southern U.S., and the devastating impact that Drax, and therefore our money in the U.K., is having on these people, on these forests… it is so outrageous,” she said. 

Despite her grievances with Drax, Martin has said repeatedly that she’s not looking to shut down the company. After all, the town does need the jobs. In 2018, the town got its first grocery store in decades. At the end of the day, she just wants what’s best for her hometown.

“No one’s invested in Gloster. Everything’s dead. The trees are dead, the grass is dead, the streets are a mess,” she said on a phone call in March. “We want to see something greater in Gloster.”

The post Trouble in the wood basket: How a global push for renewable energy took advantage of rural Mississippi appeared first on Mississippi Today.

‘The stepchildren:’ Community colleges struggle to fund buildings for growing workforce programs

BOONEVILLE — Northeast Mississippi Community College was running out of space, so after years of saving, it bought an empty furniture warehouse five minutes outside this small town. 

The plan is to fill the 350,000 square feet with the college’s growing career-technical education programs, setting up everything from classrooms, labs and offices to conference space that could support economic development in the five rural counties that comprise the northeastern-most state lines of Mississippi. 

“I can see it in my mind,” said Chris Murphy, the college’s vice president of finance, standing in the mostly empty warehouse on a recent Thursday. 

Chris Murphy, NEMCC’s vice president of finance, discusses plans for an empty furniture warehouse the college hopes to turn into a hub for its career-technical programs on March 28, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

Two years later, the warehouse is still mostly empty. In the cavernous space, there are ant hills next to cardboard boxes belonging to a tenant whose business helped the college pay off the building’s roughly $3 million note (the total cost was about $7 million). Outside, weeds poke through the cracked pavement. 

Without help affording at least half of the estimated $15 million in renovations, the warehouse will stay that way, Murphy said.

Until then, the community college and its students will make do with the current career-technical facilities, housed in decades-old brick buildings on the main campus, where conditions are moldy, grimy, cluttered and water-damaged. 

Though $15 million may not sound like much, it’s a big ask for the state’s historically neglected community college system. And NEMCC isn’t alone: Many community colleges across the state are struggling with unmet needs, especially on the infrastructure side, even though lawmakers have drawn from the state’s excess revenue to provide what may be more funding than ever before. 

Not every college has benefited equally. Though all 15 schools have received routine funds for new buildings, repairs or renovations, some colleges have gotten additional appropriations for line-item projects while others, including NEMCC, have not. 

Lawmakers acknowledged this disparity earlier this year and said they are working to fix it. 

“I want to make sure that I keep the big boys happy, and they get their fair share, but just, also … we’ve got to do something for the smaller community colleges to keep them afloat,” said Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, chair of the House Colleges and Universities Committee during an appropriations hearing earlier this year. 

But it may not be enough to correct for years of paltry funding. Mississippi has historically used bonds to fund capital projects for state entities. In 2021, the most recent year lawmakers gave out bonds, the entire 15-college system received $35 million, according to the Mississippi Community College Board. 

That’s about the highest amount ever received in bonds by the community college system. And yet, the eight universities got more than $86 million in bonds that year, despite educating fewer students than the community colleges. 

A tenant helped NEMCC pay off its $3.2 million note on the furniture warehouse the college plans to turn into a career-technical center. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

For colleges tasked with shepherding the state’s ambitious workforce development programs, the meager funding means they’re educating students in facilities that are falling behind the conditions of private industry. 

“The idea that working in a factory is dark, dangerous, dingy is not true,” said Greg James, NEMCC’s director of workforce systems. Students “need to see the environment they’re gonna be working in.”

“I don’t think I need new equipment anytime soon,” he added. “I need buildings to put it in.”

On the third floor of the William L. Waller Technical Center, in the culinary arts classroom, grease stains the ceiling tiles. 

Dead ladybugs line the windows, which aren’t insulated. A wide refrigerator is broken; another fridge can’t get cold enough. A sink in the back galley is out of commission, the pipes rusting and broken. One time in recent years, water leaked through the floor onto computers in the office below. 

Grease stains on the ceiling of NEMCC’s culinary arts lab on March 28, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

Other career-tech classes are in brick buildings with flat roofs prone to leaking. In a classroom with dead cockroaches and chalkboards, air-compressor equipment is squished together in rows that don’t resemble a factory. In an industrial lab, a basin sink is covered in grime, and the door to the nearby tool room is metal. 

“That looks like a prison to me,” said Nadara Cole, NEMCC’s vice president for workforce training and economic development. But, she joked, at least the leather-and-chrome chairs the college can’t afford to replace are back in style. 

Cole is getting ready to retire. She’s worked at NEMCC since the early 1990s, and in that time, the college has been unable to build any new career-tech facilities. The existing buildings, which she said were all constructed during an older push for vocational programs in the 1960s, are almost as old as she is. 

A grimy sink in one of NEMCC’s industrial lab. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

All the community colleges struggle with funding. With roughly 90,000 students, the community colleges educate more students than Mississippi’s public universities, but they are expected to do so with lower tuition and less state appropriations. 

This imbalance, Cole and others say, is directly reflected in the way the community colleges look which, in turn, affects recruitment. Students who tour NEMCC sometimes come from high schools that are in better shape, she said. 

“It’s subliminally telling them, ‘you’re the stepchildren,’” Cole said.

“That is the image we sometimes feel we are projecting because we don’t look as nice,” she added. 

The 15 community colleges received $396 million in operational support and capital funding last year, compared to the more than $1.1 billion appropriation for the eight universities, a figure that doesn’t include state financial aid. 

It’s not a recent phenomenon: From 1989 to 2021, the community colleges have received one-third the bond funds the universities have, according to figures compiled by MCCB. This means capital projects at the colleges move slower, because they must wait years to accumulate enough bonds, all while the cost of construction increases with inflation. 

Kell Smith, the MCCB director, said he doesn’t know why lawmakers don’t appropriate an equitable amount of bonds to the colleges, except possibly because state laws require counties within a community college district to provide additional tax revenue for the “enlargement, improvement and repair” of the campuses. 

“I hate to say that’s the way it’s always been,” Smith said. 

People are growing more skeptical about the value of higher education. More rural residents are graduating from high school, but people in those communities remain less likely than their suburban and urban peers to continue their education. This 10-part series from the Rural News Network, made possible with support from Ascendium, explores how institutions and students are meeting their educational needs and the demands of today’s rural workforce. 

For rural colleges like NEMCC that don’t have the tax base of a Tupelo or DeSoto County, this means they don’t have significant funding alternatives when state appropriations are low. NEMCC is located in Prentiss County, where nearly 17% of its population of less than 25,000 lives below the poverty line.

NEMCC gets about $4 million a year from millage from its five counties, Murphy said. 

The formula that lawmakers use for routine appropriations for repairs and renovations also poses another funding ceiling for rural colleges. Last year, lawmakers appropriated $50 million such funds based on a formula that is one-half evenly split among the colleges and one-half full-time equivalent enrollment, meaning colleges got more money if they had more students.

With about 2,500 students, NEMCC isn’t the smallest colleges in Mississippi, but it can’t compete with ones that draw enrollment from the state’s metro areas.  

Mattox points out a part of the wall that is peeling near NEMCC’s culinary arts program. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississipp[ Today

Jason Mattox, the associate vice president for career and technical education, said NEMCC receives federal funds for career-tech programs, but the amount is too small to address all the equipment issues in any given year. The money is also shared with the college’s health science programs. 

Without newer facilities, the stigma associated with career-tech education will continue to kneecap the programs, Mattox said. 

“It’s dirty, it’s greasy, it’s what we call the ol’ vo-techs,” Mattox said. “In reality, we’re not that way at all. We’re training students for highly technical, high-demand jobs, and we need facilities that replicate what students should see when they get out into the working industry.”

The difference is noticeable, said Cole Thacker, a 24-year-old culinary arts triple major who worked in restaurants before enrolling at NEMCC. 

Rusted pipes and a vacuum sit under a sink that has been unusable for years in NEMCC’s culinary arts lab on March 28, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

The kitchen is so small, he’s burned himself trying to prevent hot pans from touching other students. Because there are not enough stand mixers, he’s had to wait for his turn hours after class to finish assignments. The fridges have ruined his classmates’ projects, making it harder to learn advanced techniques like mirror glazing. 

Thacker views this program as an investment in his future; he hopes to work at Disney World after he graduates in 2026. Going directly into the restaurant industry could only take him so far, he said. 

“I tried to climb my way up, and I found out you can only climb so high without knowing … fundamental stuff that usually isn’t discussed in the professional environment,” he said.  

What’s new stands out even more in NEMCC’s outdated precision manufacturing and machining technology lab.

Toward the back of the shop are gray-and-white automated machines. They’re brand new — not to mention expensive, costing a total of $816,000. They can be used to cut material into a range of shapes to be used in the manufacturing process for anything from car parts to surgical implants. This skill set is so desirable that NEMCC’s programs have helped attract major defense contractors and international companies like Toyota to the area. 

NEMCCs new precision manufacturing machines sit a few feet away from a wall with visible water damage. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississipp[ Today

“The sky’s the limit,” said Jonathan Shaw, an instructor in the program. 

It’s also something Shaw thinks about more than he should have to. When it rains, the ceiling leaks. The location of the five machines, Shaw said, was strategic. Still, the machines are just a few feet from a wall that he said contains a “splashing risk.” 

The morning a Mississippi Today reporter visited the lab, Shaw had to vacuum up water that pooled on the floor. It’s what he signed up for when he decided to become a teacher, taking a $40,000 pay cut because he wanted to pass on the skills he’d learned to others.

Jonathan Shaw, a precision manufacturing instructor, shows photos he’s taken of water pooling on the lab floor on March 28, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

When it comes to requesting state funds for capital improvements, the community colleges are often on their own, according to interviews with state and local college officials. Unlike the state’s public universities, which are under the umbrella of the Institutions of Higher Learning, the community colleges operate more autonomously, with individual governing boards. MCCB supports the college’s requests but isn’t involved in crafting them. 

Mississippi’s workforce development office, called Accelerate MS, is a source of funding for programs and equipment — they helped NEMCC get the new machines. While brick-and-mortar projects aren’t Accelerate’s main focus, the office has acted as a pass-through for construction projects that lawmakers funded with federal pandemic money, said Courtney Taylor, its new director.

Last year, those funds went to community colleges, Taylor said, and the year before that, $20 million went to the private William Carey University for a new primary care institute

“Building buildings is very different than building people,” she said. 

Smith said he doesn’t know the scope of deferred maintenance at the colleges, and that the Department of Finance and Administration Bureau of Buildings would have that information. The colleges do provide a 5-year capital plan to MCCB, Smith added, that shows $131 million in repair-and-renovation needs for the upcoming fiscal year. 

Tiles peeling in NEMCC’s precision manufacturing lab on March 28, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississipp[ Today

What can end up happening is the colleges, like other public entities, receive funds based on how powerful their local delegation is. 

“Our legislators, they do what they say, but we’re one little corner of the whole state,” Cole said. 

At the same time, Cole said she isn’t blaming lawmakers for NEMCC’s needs. 

“There’s just not enough funds to do everything we need to do,” she said. “We’re a poor state. I get it. We can’t depend on just the state, although that is where a lot of it is going to come from.” 

That mentality also leads state agencies like MCCB to craft budget requests based on what they believe lawmakers will fund. According to a 2007 law, community colleges are supposed to receive “mid-level funding,” an amount in-between the budgets of K-12 and IHL. But lawmakers have never done that, so MCCB stopped asking for it on behalf of the colleges. 

“What the statute required us to request was such a high amount that we knew this is not reasonable, this is something we can expect to get,” Smith said. 

There’s also a lack of transparency in how funding decisions are made. Though Smith regularly talks with “budget writers” — lawmakers on the appropriations committees — he couldn’t tell Mississippi Today how they decide what to fund other than the state has finite resources. 

And two college presidents whose schools have not received as much state support as others declined to talk with Mississippi Today for this story. The presidents of Copiah-Lincoln Community College and East Central Community College said they did not have time for an interview. 

At Mississippi Delta Community College, the law enforcement training academy is struggling with mold and a roof that’s falling in, lawmakers learned during the House appropriations committee earlier this year. Tyrone Jackson, the president, said he wouldn’t talk with Mississippi Today for this article because the colleges advocate with one voice during the session.

But the colleges don’t receive state funding as one. 

Water damage on the ceiling in Brian Warren’s classroom on March 28, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

In NEMCC’s industrial maintenance classroom, instructor Brian Warren demonstrated how to cut dice while trying not to sweat. The air compressor in the decades-old building’s AC blew out that morning. 

What really gets to Warren — who, like Shaw, took a roughly $40,000 pay cut for this job — is the lack of space. 

One day, he hopes he will finally have a shop large enough to teach students how to work with a manufacturing robot, donated by a nearby Toyota supplier, that has been sitting wrapped in plastic for four years because he doesn’t have enough space to safely use it. 

A robot that was donated to NEMCC has been sitting unused in Brian Warren’s classroom for four years because there is not enough space to safely train students on it. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

Local business and economic development leaders who make up NEMCC’s workforce council met in a classroom last week, sitting in classroom desks next to mannequins prone on stretchers. An arcade-game-like simulator to teach truck driving sat in the corner. 

James, the workforce systems director, asked the council for feedback on what NEMCC could be doing to help local employers find qualified workers. If NEMCC can secure funding, the council would likely meet in the renovated furniture warehouse, in a grander space befitting the group’s ambitions.

Greg James, NEMCC’s workforce systems director, leads a workforce council meeting on March 28, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississipp[ Today

“Are we working on something you think is a waste of time?” James asked the group. 

One person suggested NEMCC should offer a lineman class. Several people said they wanted to see NEMCC teach common sense skills, from a work ethic to how to read a clock and use a tape measure. Leon Hays, the executive director of the Prentiss County Development Association, added that “getting a diploma doesn’t give you life skills.” 

Rusty Berryhill, the president of a furniture company in Union County and a past chairman of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, said NEMCC should consider creating a distribution list for employers of recent graduates, an idea that generated a lot of interest. 

Then Forrest Bryan, an ecosystem coordinator from Accelerate MS, invited members of the council to a roundtable discussion with industry, not lawmakers or nonprofits, about funding opportunities. 

NEMCC’s workforce council meets into a classroom next to mannequins and a truck driving simulator on March 28, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

“If we’re not listening to industry, we’re not listening to the people who really matter, okay?” Bryan said. “Politicians really don’t matter. I mean, obviously they matter, but they have their place over there. So the industry leaders and the industry needs are what we are wanting to address at this particular discussion.” 

“Somebody should shout, ‘Amen!’” Taylor, NEMCC’s finance person, said, tapping Mattox on the shoulder. 

The council’s next stop after the meeting was to tour a brand new robotics lab the college did up itself with painted floors and new lighting.

Before checking out the new classroom, Berryhill paid NEMCC a compliment, saying the college was working hard to be beneficial to local industry. He recently hired one NEMCC graduate at his small company, where he employs less than 125 people, and is employing another NEMCC student part-time. 

But are lawmakers appropriating enough to help the college sustain its programs? 

The workforce council toured a classroom that NEMCC recently transformed with paint and new lights on March 28, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

“I’m not answering that,” Berryhill responded. He later said he felt like it wasn’t his place to comment on funding matters, because he doesn’t want lawmakers to feel criticized for appropriating too little or make them think they are giving too much, adding “it’s a no-win situation on my part to answer that question.” 

Murphy said he thinks lawmakers support Mississippi’s community colleges — they just need to know how. By purchasing the furniture warehouse, NEMCC made a commitment to help citizens in its five-county region, an area where the free-trade agreements of the 1990s led the economy to suffer.

“We need the Legislature behind us,” Murphy said. “I think they are, especially on the workforce equipment and program side. But we need help on the capital side as well.” 

The post ‘The stepchildren:’ Community colleges struggle to fund buildings for growing workforce programs appeared first on Mississippi Today.

Big Companies Cashed In on Mississippi’s Water. Small Towns Paid the Price.

Sarah Fowler is reporting on the water crisis in Jackson, Miss., in the state where she was born and raised, as part of The Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship.

In winter 2021, more than 150,000 people living in Jackson, Miss., were left without running water.

Faucets were dry or dribbling a muddy brown. For weeks, people across the city lost the water they normally relied on to drink, cook and bathe. With no way to flush their toilets, some parents sent their children into the woods to relieve themselves. Businesses closed. Mississippi’s capital effectively shut down.

The following year, at the height of Mississippi’s sweltering summer in August 2022, it would all happen again.

Each time Jackson faced a water crisis, local and state leaders cast blame in familiar directions. Lawmakers criticized city officials for ignoring leaky pipes and failing to collect payments from customers. City officials pointed to Jackson’s shrinking population and decades of economic decline. And they said state officials, mostly white and Republican, had starved the mostly Black, Democratic city of resources.

But the final blow was delivered by Siemens, a giant German corporation that had swept into town in 2010, boldly promising to install modern water meters that would boost revenues and return Jackson’s water system to a moneymaking enterprise that could afford to fix its crumbling infrastructure.

Siemens, better known for building power plants and high-speed trains, failed to deliver on its promises. Jackson found itself with many meters that didn’t work and wildly inaccurate water bills it couldn’t collect.

Siemens returned the $90 million it had been paid for the project. But the damage was done. Jackson was out more than $450 million in fees and lost revenue. It had no way to repair failing equipment and aging pipes that left city water unsafe to drink and ultimately led to a federal takeover of the water system in December 2022.

The outlines of Siemens’s role in Jackson’s water issues were laid out publicly in 2019, when the city sued the company. But Jackson was not the only Mississippi city that fell victim to the promise of easy money.

Mayor Quordiniah N. Lockley of McComb, Miss., said his city paid $10 million for meters that were improperly installed. Credit: Rory Doyle/The New York Times

A yearlong New York Times investigation, drawing on thousands of pages of government records and interviews with city officials across the state, reveals how Siemens and other corporations went from one small, cash-strapped town to the next making grand promises to modernize water systems and boost revenues. It also sheds new light on the involvement of a state agency that was supposed to vet the deals.

In town after town, salesmen lured city officials who had little expertise in water meters with gee-whiz technology and complicated cost-saving algorithms. They said the meters could be installed at no cost to taxpayers and offered cash-back guarantees.

Even when meters started failing in large numbers and cities complained they were on the verge of financial disaster, the companies kept selling their services.

For nearly a decade, three companies — Siemens; the Mississippi-based McNeil Rhoads, started by a former Siemens salesman, Chris McNeil; and the North Carolina water meter manufacturer Mueller — crisscrossed the state signing multimillion-dollar deals in cities desperate for money.

Mr. McNeil pitched most of the deals, first for Siemens, then for his own company. He claimed that Mueller’s “smart” meters would be so accurate and efficient they would more than pay for themselves. In accordance with state policy at the time, every project was reviewed by the Mississippi Development Authority, an agency run by executives appointed by the governor.

From 2009 to 2017, at least 10 Mississippi cities signed contracts with the companies to install smart meters or other new technology. All but one have reported problems, and at least four have sued to recoup money they paid to Siemens, McNeil Rhoads or Mueller. Three of those suits are still pending.

Siemens and McNeil Rhoads, competitors that pitched the projects and acted as project managers, hired contractors who installed many meters improperly, according to officials in Jackson, McComb and Moss Point. In some cities, the two companies also struggled to link meters to the home office or to merge a new billing system with an old one.

Officials in at least eight Mississippi cities said they had problems with Mueller’s smart meters, which sometimes didn’t measure accurately because of faulty parts or batteries that died sooner than promised. Water departments in other states, including California and Missouri, have reported similar problems with Mueller meters over the past decade.

McComb, a city of 12,000 people south of Jackson, signed the first Siemens water meter contract in Mississippi. Mayor Quordiniah N. Lockley, city manager at the time, said McComb agreed to pay the company $10 million to install 6,000 smart Master Meters.

But contract workers hired by Siemens put them in backward and missed deadlines to install the antennas that the meters needed to communicate with a central office, Mr. Lockley said. Then some customers saw their water bills hit as much as $1,000 per month, with no obvious explanation.

Mr. Lockley said he called a friend, whom he declined to name, on the Jackson City Council and warned him not to go forward with the developing Siemens deal there.

He said he had one message: “Run.”

“Just because they come in a suit and tie doesn’t mean they’re not selling snake oil,” Mr. Lockley said in an interview.

Even as lawsuits and complaints from customers mounted, the companies continued making the same promises, and state and city officials continued approving contracts.

Jackson ultimately signed a deal with Siemens to install Mueller meters, the largest contract in the city’s history. Officials in Cleveland, a small city in the Mississippi Delta, inked a deal with Siemens for Mueller meters as well. Columbus, Meridian and Moss Point — all largely Black cities of fewer than 35,000 people — hired McNeil Rhoads to install Mueller meters.

Officials in some of the cities say they have been financially crippled.

In a letter to the development authority and the state attorney general, Jamie Lee, the city attorney for Cleveland, wrote that hundreds of meters were malfunctioning and the issue “could lead Cleveland into a major financial deficit if not addressed immediately.” She asked for “the assistance of your two offices in achieving a resolution with Siemens.”

Ms. Lee said she never received a response.

In a statement that did not address complaints by other Mississippi cities, a Siemens spokeswoman, Annie Satow, said the company had invested significant work in Jackson to “help navigate persistent challenges outside the company’s control,” including “substantial assistance beyond contractual requirements” with the billing system.

“Siemens acted in good faith, worked cooperatively with city personnel and was transparent and responsive to oversight by the city’s administration and Department of Public Works,” she wrote.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson said that while he couldn’t discuss the specifics of the deal, Siemens was not entirely to blame. Jackson, he said, willingly entered into a bad agreement. He declined to elaborate, and his office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Since the federal takeover, which came with an infusion of $600 million and a third-party manager to run the water system, leaks are being repaired and citywide boil-water notices have drastically diminished.

Mr. McNeil did not return numerous calls seeking comment. A Mueller spokesman and other executives did not respond to repeated calls and emails.

Records show that Siemens and Mueller made attempts to replace or repair some meters in the cities where problems arose, but the cites still lost money and some, including Jackson, McComb and Moss Point, had to pay to replace meters or other technology on their own.

Reached by phone, Glenn McCullough, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority from 2015 to 2020, said he had not been aware of widespread problems with Siemens, McNeil Rhoads or Mueller. He referred questions to the agency’s spokeswoman, Tammy Craft, who declined to comment.

“We can’t speak on this any further, since no one involved in reviewing these contracts back-when is at M.D.A. anymore,” Ms. Craft wrote.

But she noted that in 2017, state lawmakers passed a bill ending M.D.A.’s oversight of such contracts.

A water service site in Jackson last December. Credit: Rory Doyle/The New York Times

A promising solution for an ailing system

At the time Jackson was considering a deal with Siemens, the water industry was in the midst of a major transition. New technologies had made it possible for sensors to more accurately measure water use. Smart meters could eliminate the need for meter readers to visit homes to calculate people’s water bills, a huge potential savings for utility departments.

Manufacturers, including Mueller, saw the technology as a critical part of their future. But only if they could convince municipal water departments it was worth spending millions of dollars to replace old equipment. In financial statements filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2015, Mueller described water utilities as slow adopters of the technology because of installation costs.

The water industry found a solution in the growing effort to make public agencies and schools more energy-efficient.

As far back as the 1980s, the federal government had been supporting partnerships with private companies to retrofit buildings with more efficient equipment.

Under energy performance contracts, municipalities could borrow money and use it to hire private contractors to replace old light fixtures, air-conditioning units and other appliances. Savings from lower electric bills would then be used to pay off the debt, allowing cities to invest in improvements at no real cost to taxpayers.

The contracts had made Siemens tens of millions of dollars in Mississippi alone and allowed a financially struggling state to afford equipment upgrades that otherwise might have been out of reach.

Then, two years before Siemens pitched a plan to help Jackson fix its ailing water system, the Mississippi attorney general’s office issued an opinion that helped pave the way for even more ambitious projects.

In 2008, the office reviewed the state statute governing energy performance contracts and concluded that cities and school districts could use them to finance projects that conserved water, not just energy.

McComb boomed as a railroad city in the 1870s, but today, one in three people live under the poverty line. Credit: Rory Doyle/The New York Times

An opportunity ‘too good to pass up’

In 2009, a decade before Jackson officials sued Siemens over failed meters, the company signed its first water contract in the state in tiny McComb.

McComb had boomed as a railroad city in the 1870s, carved out of a dense pine forest about halfway between Jackson and New Orleans.

Today it resembles a lot of small Mississippi towns: Its shrinking population is almost 75 percent Black. One in three people live under the poverty line. A downtown resurgence has begun, but money for civic improvements is in short supply.

So when Siemens offered a way to fill city coffers through the water department, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

According to Mr. Lockley, Siemens told city officials they would be able to disconnect someone’s water with the touch of a button while sitting in their office. New smart meters would measure water use remotely and more accurately.

Siemens said the meters would boost revenues by more than $600,000 a year, sales materials show. And city officials believed McComb would be “one of the top water departments in the state,” Mr. Lockley recalled.

McComb paid Siemens to replace 6,000 water meters, but computer software glitches and delays in installing communication antennae left the city unable to monitor water usage remotely, Mr. Lockley said. Residents also began complaining of erroneous water bills.

When McComb tried to cancel the contract, Siemens sued and the case went to mediation. To get out of the contract, McComb agreed to pay for the meters already in the ground at a cost of $2 million to $3 million, Mr. Lockley said. Then the city hired another company to install software that allowed the meters to function.

Mr. Lockley said he has never spoken publicly about the settlement before because he signed a nondisclosure agreement.

“They tie your hands, say you can’t talk about the situation, and it just keeps happening,” Mr. Lockley said.

Meters in Moss Point, one of multiple cities whose residents complained of soaring water bills. Credit: Rory Doyle/The New York Times

Jackson’s crippling ‘sweetheart deal’

Even as problems arose in McComb, Mr. McNeil used the city as a selling point to win new business for Siemens.

Mr. McNeil had been a local football standout in Petal, Miss., before becoming an offensive lineman at Mississippi State University in the early 2000s. He previously had secured a 15-year contract for Siemens to overhaul lighting, air-conditioning and traffic lights throughout Jackson.

He and a fellow salesman, Dusty Rhoads, the son of the mayor of nearby Flowood, traveled the state, pitching similar contracts to financially strapped towns. They eventually left Siemens and started their own company, McNeil Rhoads, signing smart meter contracts with at least six cities.

When pitching to Cleveland, Mr. McNeil, representing Siemens, noted the McComb contract in a sales presentation, city records show. Savings were “guaranteed,” his slide show said. If they fell short, “we will write you a check for the difference.” The statement was followed by eight exclamation points.

In a presentation for Siemens, Chris McNeil “guaranteed” that Cleveland would save money by changing out its water meters. Credit: City of Cleveland

In September 2010, Mr. McNeil sent the first in a series of emails to the Public Works Department in Jackson. He had a plan to replace the city’s water meters and make critical repairs to its infrastructure. The project would create jobs, he promised, and the new meters would cover the cost of installation — or else the company would.

Mr. McNeil pursued Jackson officials for two years and backed up his cost-saving claims with a Siemens-funded study of the meters. All of this, he said, had already been done down the road in McComb.

By the end of 2012, Jackson was on the verge of signing a $90 million deal that the city would later estimate cost it $450 million in expenses and lost revenues.

Based on an email Mr. McNeil sent to Jackson’s public works director then, Dan Gaillet, at least one Jackson official was aware of the project in McComb. But Mr. Lockley said no one called him about it and his warning was ignored.

Problems emerged just weeks into the Jackson project. A politically connected subcontractor, hired by Siemens at the recommendation of city officials, had installed some meters improperly, and later, there were communication errors between the meters and receivers. Some meters showed customers not using any water, while others got huge bills that city officials said were implausible.

Unable to calculate realistic bills, Jackson officials stopped collecting from thousands of customers.

The loss of revenue exacerbated years of neglect and poor decision-making and left the water department in dire financial straits and residents facing a near continuous string of boil-water notices. City officials would later accuse subcontractors involved with the project of contributing to the problems, something they deny.

A former Jackson councilman, Melvin Priester, was elected after the city had signed the deal but before groundbreaking had begun. He voiced his objections but was in the minority.

Siemens got a “sweetheart deal,” Mr. Priester told The Times, but “when you are in bad straits like the City of Jackson is now and was in 2013, all of your options are bad deals.”

Calls for help went unanswered

The Mississippi Development Authority, which greenlit the project, was created in 2000 as an economic engine for the state. It directs tax credits to attract companies and gives out millions of dollars in grants to spur revitalization efforts.

As far back as 2010, it also played a role in reducing local energy and water use.

If a city wanted to borrow against future savings for a retrofit project, it had to submit a request to the development authority. State law required the authority to review and approve each contract to “assure that entities can rely upon projected and guaranteed energy savings,” according to policies that were in effect until 2017.

The reviews, conducted by licensed engineers outside the authority, were seen as a critical backstop by city officials, who often lacked the expertise or resources to verify companies’ promises.

“M.D.A. legitimized it,” said Amy St. Pe’, Moss Point’s city attorney, who is suing McNeil Rhoads and Mueller. “Any doubts that we had, when we saw that M.D.A. was backing the program, we felt that it had to be good for the city.”

During a sales pitch, Mr. McNeil cited the agency’s approval process to dispel naysayers in Harrison County, a Gulf Coast community that was considering a project with his company. At a September 2014 meeting, the board of supervisors worried that the county could be left millions in debt if the savings didn’t pan out, according to an article in The Biloxi Sun Herald. Mr. McNeil responded by saying the project was “100 percent regulated by the Mississippi Development Authority,” and the board voted unanimously in favor.

Amy St. Pe’, the city attorney in Moss Point, which has sued McNeil Rhoads and Mueller. Credit: Rory Doyle/The New York Times

Records show the agency often engaged in back-and-forth with cities seeking approval of the contracts. No application prompted more scrutiny than Jackson’s.

When the development authority reviewed Siemens’s proposal, it raised more than 200 questions, asking how the work being described could possibly save the city money. Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. sent a 19-page reply that answered and largely dismissed those concerns. One week later, in March 2013, the agency signed off on the contract.

From 2009 to 2017, at least 12 cities pursued energy performance contracts that the agency reviewed, a number of them involving water projects.

Companies pitching the work came up with predicted cost savings using their own methods, records show. Siemens’s estimate, for example, depended largely on how much more accurate new meters would be than old meters. But nowhere in the state’s analysis did engineers ask Siemens or the other companies to prove their calculations.

In a review of hundreds of pages of correspondence between the agency and local officials, The Times did not find a single instance when state officials passed on information about problems cities were experiencing with Siemens, McNeil Rhoads or Mueller.

In fact, when cities directly reported problems and begged the agency for help, they found themselves on their own.

Ms. Lee, the Cleveland city attorney, said she, the mayor and at least two aldermen sought guidance from the agency to no avail.

Ms. Lee wrote her letter in May 2018. A year later, in August 2019, when the city was already embroiled in a lawsuit with Siemens and Mueller, Alderman Gary Gainspoletti sent another letter, pleading with officials as the city was trying to “stop the bleeding.”

An agency official acknowledged receipt, but help never came.

Mr. McCullough, the agency’s executive director at the time, said, “I don’t recall seeing any document regarding defective water meters coming to my desk.”

A Moss Point utilities clerk, Melisia Smith, showed what she said was an overcharged water bill her grandmother received. Credit: Rory Doyle/The New York Times

Warning signs emerge nationwide

For years as companies installed Mueller meters across Mississippi, the meter manufacturer was aware of problems with its products in other states, including California and Missouri.

In 2012, the same year Cleveland was putting faulty water meters in the ground and Jackson was signing its contract, Mueller alerted a water authority in Missouri that some meters had defective magnets that would break, preventing them from recording water consumption, according to a regulatory report. The water authority returned the meters to Mueller for repair.

Years later, a federal class action lawsuit filed in New York by a Mueller shareholder alleged that executives had “misled the investing public” by not being honest about the failure rate of smart meters. The suit was dismissed in 2020, but sworn statements by three confidential informants suggested that Mueller was struggling with high failure rates as early as 2013.

That is when San Diego officials realized that a connection problem was preventing many of the meters from recording data, according to one of the witnesses, described in the suit as a regional manager for Mueller. Residents complained for years of abnormally high bills. The same issues would arise in Jackson and other Mississippi cities.

The suit also pointed out problems that year in Missouri. Mueller replaced nearly 80 percent of water meters in Chillicothe after moisture was found in parts that were supposed to be dry. By 2019, because of battery issues, the replacement meters had a failure rate of 89 percent.

The largest investigation into Mueller by a public utility would unfold in the state. From 2012 to 2015, Missouri American Water installed thousands of Mueller meters. Regulators reported that the meters had “several different kinds of defects,” leading to inaccurate readings or none at all. In August 2015, the utility began a costly campaign to replace 24,000 of the nearly 100,000 that had been installed.

All the while, Mueller was touting its smart meters as a critical driver of growth and telling investors that municipal governments would increasingly seek out the new technology.

A new, functioning water meter in McComb. Credit: Rory Doyle/The New York Times

‘They preyed on disadvantaged cities’

Mr. McNeil continued to push Mueller meters. After winning Siemens the Jackson contract, he started his own company and used the meters in energy performance contracts he landed across Mississippi — in Columbus, Gautier, Grenada, Meridian, Moss Point and Tupelo.

Seven years after signing in 2014, Columbus Light and Water Department reported excessive failure rates and began pressing Mueller to make good on an extended warranty it had promised. Early on, the company was responsive, answering emails and sending a batch of parts, according to department records. But when complaints continued, Mueller employees stopped answering the department’s questions, said Mike Bernsen, the utility’s interim general manager in 2021.

“We played it through the channels as far as we could.” Mr. Bernsen said.

Frustrations with getting Mueller officials to respond continued into 2022, emails show. In a series of emails early that year, department officials asked Mueller for a meeting to discuss the increasing number of failing meters, but after weeks without an answer, they concluded the company was avoiding them.

Moss Point, signing with McNeil Rhoads in 2017, discovered problems almost immediately, according to Ms. St. Pe’, the city attorney. Residents’ bills were improbably high, and Mueller initially offered batches of replacement devices.

But then, once the city filed suit, the company claimed it was under no obligation to replace the meters because the city had bought them from McNeil Rhoads, not directly from Mueller. Mueller stopped responding and McNeil Rhoads went out of business, leaving Moss Point with little financial recourse, Ms. St. Pe’ said.

“McNeil Rhoades is who convinced us to purchase these water meters,” she said. “I feel like they preyed on disadvantaged cities, predominantly African American cities.”

Out of the six known cities that hired McNeil Rhoads, four are majority Black.

Mueller may have stopped replying to Columbus and Moss Point, but a sales representative, John Flynn, was still pushing updated meters in Tupelo last June.

In an email to Chris Lewis, the local utility’s superintendent, he asked if the city wanted to “try some of our new meters.” Mr. Lewis said he would take five. Mr. Flynn said they come eight to a box.

Mr. Lewis responded: “Perfect!”

Irene Casado Sanchez contributed reporting. This article was reported in partnership with Big Local News at Stanford University.

The post Big Companies Cashed In on Mississippi’s Water. Small Towns Paid the Price. appeared first on Mississippi Today.

A small town struggles to survive in the heart of Mississippi’s hospital crisis

BELZONI – Deep in a crumbling building, there is a room filled with folders. 

Just a sliver of the room’s walls peek over the top of the manila piles. There are too many folders to count, with thick stacks of documents inside them, containing precious, forgotten information about a forgotten community, a community once cared for in this very building.

The only hospital in Belzoni, Patients’ Choice Medical Center of Humphreys County, closed in 2013. Besides the piles of paper, this building is empty, and the town is following suit. In the decade since the hospital’s closure, Belzoni has suffered.

Belzoni calls itself the “heart of the Delta” because of the town’s central location — people driving to various places in the region must pass through Belzoni, particularly those coming from Jackson.

After driving over the last hill just north of Yazoo City, U.S. 49 opens up into the Delta’s vast fields of green, leading straight to the city of Belzoni, just a speck flying past on the right. If you blink, you’ll miss it.

But to miss it would be to miss one of the rural communities that comprise the beating heart of Mississippi.

Rural towns, where the majority of Mississippians make their lives and homes, are often powered by hospitals that provide health care and jobs that sustain small but significant economies. When these small-town hospitals like Belzoni’s close, it can be devastating to so many people. 

It’s not just a loss of health care — economies collapse, as does a sense of safety. Almost everyone in Belzoni seems to have had a near-death experience, or a family member who has a near-death experience, after the hospital closed. The nearest hospitals are at least a 25-minute drive away.

And not all citizens suffer equally. 

In the Delta, the power dynamic and wealth gap between Black and white residents borne out of a history of slavery and Jim Crow laws are still prevalent. Poverty, race and health are inextricably connected. 

Belzoni’s story may be the future of other small towns in Mississippi. Nearly half of the state’s rural hospitals — just like the one that shuttered here — are at risk of closure.

Most Mississippians support Medicaid expansion. Ample national and state research shows that the policy is financially beneficial, and medical experts have said for years that it would help Mississippi’s hospitals and residents. But Gov. Tate Reeves continues to vehemently oppose the policy. 

Meanwhile, hospital closures loom across the state, due in large part to huge uncompensated costs from caring for uninsured Mississippians. The Delta, the sickest region of the state, is in particular danger. 

At least 12 hospitals, including long-term care facilities, besides Patients’ Choice have closed since 2008, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health.

But the impact of Medicaid expansion goes beyond financial viability for hospitals — it means making health care accessible for more people. As of 2019, 8.9% of people in Humphreys County were uninsured and would qualify for coverage if Medicaid was expanded, the highest rate of any county in the Delta and tied for the fourth-highest rate in the state. That’s slightly less than half of the total population of uninsured adults in Humphreys County. Statewide, an additional estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people would qualify under Medicaid expansion.

The lack of a hospital didn’t stop Emily Donovan from moving to Belzoni from Vicksburg in 2015. Her love of the lush Mississippi Delta and small-town life outweighed her concerns. After all, growing up in rural Mississippi, she was used to driving at least half an hour to get to the closest hospital.

Emily Donovan, president of the Belzoni Humphreys Development Foundation, observes attendees of the Christmas Farmers and Crafters Market in Belzoni, Miss., on Monday, Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: Devna Bose/Mississippi Today

But now, almost a decade and two kids later, Donovan is worried about her family and the vitality of her community.

She and her husband, who own an internet and phone cable business, have been turned down by prospective hires because of the lack of emergency care in Belzoni. And Donovan is the executive director of the county’s economic development board. It’s hard to do her job — boosting the town’s economy — when there’s no hospital for 25 miles in any direction. 

Though Donovan estimates about a dozen businesses have opened in Belzoni since she moved there, an even greater number have closed.

“When you don’t have a hospital, businesses don’t usually want to come into a community,” she said.

As Donovan’s kids grow up, the issue also hits closer to home. 

At a sleepover Donovan’s son hosted at her house a few months ago, he and his friends climbed up on the roof in a fit of boyish play during the night. When Donovan’s husband realized where the teenagers were, he hollered up to them, “We don’t have a hospital anywhere near here, so y’all need to get down!”

“What are you going to do in the middle of the night?” Donovan asked one afternoon in November, lines of motherly worry creasing her forehead. 

A number of people in Belzoni could tell her the answer: Drive like hell and hope you make it.

Joe Jackson was born in Belzoni in 1960, the same year the town’s population peaked. He was elected mayor the same year the population reached a 100-year low. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

A bell jingles as Mayor Joe Jackson opens the door and shuffles into a restaurant a few steps away from City Hall.

“Hey, mayor,” the owner behind the counter says, while others murmur their greetings to him.

Many of the patrons have known Jackson for a long time, long before he was elected mayor in 2020. He was born and raised in this community, like many of them. Belzoni is that way — a town where there are no strangers. 

It’s a rainy day. Jackson orders gumbo, looks out of the window and starts a story.

“Our small town hospital didn’t offer a whole lot,” he begins. “But it was something.” 

Jackson was born in Belzoni by a midwife in 1960, the same year his hometown reached a population peak of 4,071 residents. 

Though the town’s population had been dropping for decades, three strikes hit the town in the latter half of the century. First, the factory operated by retail company Jockey and employing at least 300 people closed in 1993. 

People gather for the Second Annual Christmas Tree Lighting and Christmas Farmers and Crafters Market in Belzoni, Miss., on Monday, Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: Devna Bose/Mississippi Today

Then, Belzoni’s largest industry was devastated. Once called the world’s catfish capital, the town couldn’t keep up with the rise of imported fish. Belzoni is hesitant to let go of its moniker — painted catfish sculptures still leap from its sleepy downtown sidewalks — but the days of leading in catfish exports are well behind them.

The final nail in the coffin was the hospital closure in 2013. 

“When the hospital closed, it was kind of a surprise to most people,” Jackson said. “It was almost like they were open one week, and then closed the next week.”

At first, residents, including Jackson, were hopeful the hospital would reopen. He had worked at the hospital for 20 years as an EMT, from 1985 to 2005. It seemed unfathomable to him that the hospital would close for good.

At the time of its closure, rumors were flying about hospital mismanagement — it seemed like most people hoped that new leadership could reopen the facility and turn the hospital around, Jackson said. 

But months went by. 

Suddenly, there just seemed to be fewer people in town. Some of the hospital’s 100-plus employees left Belzoni, and those who didn’t had to find jobs elsewhere.

“There were people in town every day because they worked at the hospital,” he said. “Now, they’re working out of town, so even the restaurants and stuff around town failed … downtown got a lot quieter.”

Despite repeated requests for data about city revenue, the city clerk never provided any information. State data shows, though, that Belzoni has collected less and less in sales tax since the hospital closed. In 2013, the city’s share of sales tax was $536,960. Ten years later, despite inflation, it’s down to $461,588.

Jackson has seen the hospital issue from all sides: as a longtime citizen, as a former hospital employee and now, a town leader. No matter how you look at it, he said, Belzoni is a shell of its former self.

“You can’t really convince people to move to a small town that does not have a hospital,” he said. “It just breaks your heart.”

In 2020, the same year Jackson was elected mayor, Belzoni’s population dropped below 2,000 for the first time in a century.

Five men sit at a table in a stuffy room on the top floor of the Humphreys County courthouse.

At the center is Humphreys County Board of Supervisors president Richard Stevens, known to most as just “Dick” or “Dickie.” Stevens, the sole white person on the board, is flanked by the other four supervisors. 

Richard Stevens was the longest serving member on the Humphreys County Board of Supervisors until his retirement in December. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

All eyes are turned toward them and the woman Stevens is currently in a screaming match with, Timaka James-Jones, the county’s circuit clerk.

One hour into the board of supervisors meeting on Nov. 6, a discussion about county affairs has devolved, but no one seems particularly surprised. 

This sort of thing isn’t uncommon in a county where the gaps between members of the community are so wide and deep.

People who live in Belzoni don’t agree on why the hospital closed and whether it’s had an impact on the town’s economy. Even its leaders can’t reach a consensus on the hospital. And for some of the town’s residents, these meetings are the easiest way to be heard by the five men who make decisions for them all. 

Stevens is perhaps the most powerful man in Humphreys County. 

He was the board’s longest serving member until his retirement in December, and the owner of the county’s largest employer, Consolidated Catfish Co., located just a few miles north of Belzoni in a pinprick of a town called Isola. 

Stevens and Roy Broomfield, who also retired at the end of last year, were the only two board members serving in December who were also on the board when it voted to sell the hospital to a private owner, Ray Shoemaker, a few years before its closure. 

However, the two long-serving board members have differing ideas about how important a hospital is to Humphreys.

Stevens has lived in Humphreys County since 1949. He was 6 when his family moved from Tremont, a small town in north Mississippi near the Alabama state line. His father was a crop duster, so instead of flying back and forth every summer, the Stevens patriarch made the move permanent. 

Stevens started farming catfish in the late 60s, and his plant, a result of two merged catfish processors, has been around for decades. The company processes more than a million pounds of catfish every week, and it employs around 600 people, who are some of the only people in Humphreys County with health insurance, Stevens said.

He decided to run for the board seat 24 years ago because he wanted to protect the county’s economic vitality. 

However, two decades later, one of the town’s biggest economic drivers is closed, according to the mayor and other city leaders. 

Stevens doesn’t see it that way. He said the hospital had been losing money for a long time, and it wasn’t even doing its job that well. 

“It wasn’t comparable to nearby hospitals,” he said. 

Stevens complained that residents were misusing the emergency room, treating it like “free” primary care. 

Though there are two health clinics in Belzoni that offer primary care, emergency rooms are the only health care option for many uninsured people because they cannot turn away patients, regardless of insurance status. There are few, if any, primary care or preventative care options for people without health insurance — the hospital was likely their only option.

By the time the board of supervisors sold the hospital, it was millions of dollars in the hole, Stevens said. He hoped Shoemaker would be able to turn things around but doesn’t consider it much of a loss that he ended up being unable to. 

“I think he did what he could do to make it work,” Stevens said, placing much of the blame on Belzoni’s already-slowing economy, which he doesn’t think the hospital’s closure significantly affected. “There were many negative factors.”

Stevens is, at best, resigned and, at worst, indifferent: “It’s just the way of life here.”

Dr. Sidney Gorton II feels similarly. He and his father are the only two full-time doctors in Belzoni. They run a family rural health clinic in Belzoni, and both used to work at the hospital. 

He agreed with Stevens that misuse of the emergency room was one of the things that led to the hospital’s decline. The hospital’s inpatient census was always pretty low, too, he remembers, and when patients did have Medicaid coverage, low reimbursements rates didn’t cover hospital expenses.

But the doctor said he was not sure that Medicaid expansion was the solution to Belzoni’s health care desert, and that issues leading to the hospital’s closure were more far-reaching. 

Broomfield’s recollection is a little different — and much more painful.

While Broomfield, who’s been on the board for two decades, agrees that perhaps Belzoni didn’t have the population or dollars in the community to sustain the hospital, he believes the lack of emergency care in Belzoni is dangerous. He knows it’s dangerous. 

Because even Broomfield, another powerful and well-known Belzonian, isn’t immune to the effects — he lost a son to lack of health care in the Delta a little over a decade ago. 

Roy Broomfield, whose son died in the car on the way to the hospital, is pictured inside the Humphreys County Courthouse in Belzoni, Miss., on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Credit: Devna Bose/Mississippi Today

It was supposed to be a happy occasion.

Back in 2010, Broomfield’s son, 39-year-old Roy Jr., was home visiting his parents. He lived states away in Dallas, and Broomfield was thrilled to have his son in town.

But at about 2:30 a.m., Broomfield’s son woke him up, complaining about feeling sick. His father guessed it was indigestion or something similar, but thought they should go to a hospital anyway, just to be safe. 

Broomfield figured they had a little time, so he didn’t take his son to Patients Choice, which had a reputation as a declining hospital at that point, referred to as the local “Band-Aid station.” So Broomfield decided to take him to Greenwood Leflore Hospital, a little over 30 minutes away. 

On the way, his son suffered a massive heart attack. An ambulance Broomfield called never arrived, and the son was brain dead before they reached the Greenwood hospital.

Broomfield has regrets — he always will. But at least he had the option to take his son somewhere closer. 

“At least we had a place to go to get a Band-Aid put on,” Broomfield said. “Now we don’t even have that. A lot of people’s lives could have been saved if we had a hospital here.”

Timaka James-Jones, member-elect of the Mississippi House of Representatives for District 51, talks about the lack of medical care in Belzoni while in her office at the Humphreys County Courthouse in Belzoni on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

The circuit clerk, James-Jones, shares Broomfield’s perspective, as do many Black leaders in town. James-Jones grew up with Broomfield’s son, and she was born at what was then-Humphreys County Memorial Hospital.

Not only was the hospital a huge employer, James-Jones said there were also impactful community advocacy programs being run by the hospital. In her eyes, the hospital was central to the community.

That’s why James-Jones, who was recently elected to the state House of Representatives, isn’t afraid to speak her mind to the board and fight in public with its leader. She has suffered immense loss — friends and family — from the lack of emergency care, which she directly attributes to the board’s actions. One of the most well-known examples is the death of one of her relatives, Harmony Ball-Stribling. 

Byron Stribling tried to rush his wife, Harmony Ball-Stribling, to a hospital in Yazoo County after she experienced pregnancy complications. Before they arrived at the hospital, Harmony went into cardiac arrest. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Everyone in town seems to know Harmony’s story, every grisly and heart-wrenching detail.

During the summer of 2021, Harmony was days away from giving birth when she began experiencing pregnancy complications as a result of preeclampsia, a condition that results in high blood pressure and organ damage.

Her husband, Byron Stribling, raced her to the hospital in Yazoo County. Harmony was his high school sweetheart, the love of his life. She was pregnant with his first child, a baby they had tirelessly prayed for and underwent an arduous in vitro fertilization process to conceive.

But before they arrived at the hospital, Harmony went into cardiac arrest in the passenger seat. Byron, who operates a funeral home, buried his own wife and baby days later. 

After her daughter, Harmony Ball-Stribling, died on her way to a hospital in Yazoo, Shenelle Ball-Burks implored the board of supervisors to figure out how to reopen the Belzoni hospital. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

After her death, Harmony’s mother, Shenelle Ball-Burks, and Byron implored the board of supervisors to figure out how to reopen the Belzoni hospital. Harmony’s mother remembers how defeated she felt when the supervisors told her there was nothing they could do.

James-Jones says the hospital closure is “the most devastating thing that has happened” in Humphreys County.

Amid the competing opinions and recollections of the demise of Belzoni’s only hospital, one of the few people who should be able to explain the hospital’s closure isn’t keen on providing many details. 

Much of what happened with the hospital is lost to time, thanks to a specific kind of small-town Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

No one can say where the hospital’s financial reports are. The county’s board attorney, state Rep. Willie Bailey, didn’t know where they would be and said the county wouldn’t be in possession of them, if they even still existed. He suggested the hospital board might still have them.

But the hospital board is, obviously, disbanded. Several of its previous members have died in the past 10 years. 

Even Mack Liddell, the Humphreys County chancery clerk since 2020, couldn’t say where the records were. 

“Those records are not in my care at this time,” he responded to Mississippi Today’s records request. 

Liddell said his predecessor had taken a great number of county records “home with him” when he left office, and then promptly died, too. Perhaps the records are somewhere in that man’s house, or they’re in one of the many manila folders in the run down hospital building that sits on the edge of town.

Patient records are stored at the former Patients’ Choice Medical Center of Humphreys County in Belzoni, Miss., on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

One would think that Ray Shoemaker, the hospital’s last owner, would have all the answers, but it doesn’t seem like he particularly wants to talk about the hospital’s decline.

After all, Shoemaker was sentenced to 55 months in federal prison in 2012 for multiple counts of health-care fraud, most of the malfeasance related to another hospital he ran.

“I don’t want my story played again,” he said when reached by phone. 

Though hesitant to talk, he explained that he became interested in owning the hospital because he grew up in Walnut Grove, another small town in east central Mississippi, and recognized the need for rigorous health care in the state’s rural communities. 

When the board of supervisors heard Shoemaker was interested —  he was being lauded then for turning around Tri-Lakes Medical Center in Batesville — they jumped at the opportunity. Shoemaker took over the Belzoni hospital’s management in 2007, and a year later, he bought the 34-bed hospital outright, taking on its $5.4 million in debts.

When asked what made him think he could turn the hospital around, Shoemaker joked, “Insanity.”

He went on to take charge of several other hospitals across the state. Shoemaker says he reduced the Belzoni hospital’s debt and increased its services by sharing resources among his facilities.

Then in 2012, Shoemaker was prosecuted for health care fraud committed at the Batesville health center. 

Despite purported strides at the Belzoni hospital, when Shoemaker started experiencing “legal challenges,” as he puts it, the facility was suddenly in danger. He could no longer manage the hospital’s daily operations. 

Inspection reports show that the hospital faced difficulties in its final years, even before Shoemaker took over.

Apparently, record-keeping has long been a struggle for the facility. Since 2007, state evaluators have been taking issue with the unorganized mountains of records stored in the hospital. In December 2012, “the administrator stated that he could not find documentation that the facility had conducted an annual evaluation of its total program during the past year,” according to one inspection report.

The reports show that by July 22, 2013, Patients’ Choice was no longer in operation.

As it turns out, Shoemaker can’t speak to the hospital’s final days. He was in prison.

Joann Wilson gives a tour of the former Patients’ Choice Medical Center of Humphreys County in Belzoni, Miss., on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Joann and Joseph Wilson walk through the dark halls of the dilapidated hospital building.

The ceilings are falling in, and there’s graffiti on the walls. There are rooms upon rooms of documents. But they think the building still has some life in it. 

The old hospital was recently bought by an investor who has partnered with the Wilsons to turn the building into a clinic for people struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse. 

Joseph Wilson gives a tour of the former Patients’ Choice Medical Center of Humphreys County in Belzoni, Miss., on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

For Joseph, the project holds special meaning — his life was saved at the Belzoni hospital when it was in operation. He was rushed here in 2008 because he slipped into a diabetic coma, and doctors in the emergency room stabilized him.

“If this facility had not been here when I was sick, I might not be alive today,” he said. 

The Wilsons say they’re open to allowing someone to open an emergency room in the clinic building. They agree it’s a major need for the community.

Several people who mourn the loss of the hospital have cited efforts in recent years to reopen an emergency room in Belzoni.

As mayor, Jackson has met with countless politicians and health care leaders to bring back emergency care in Belzoni. It’s hard to see any kind of future for the town without it, he said. James-Jones and Liddell, the chancery clerk, have been invested in this effort, too. 

The efforts went as far as a packed town hall, where prolific hospital owner Quentin Whitwell spoke about new legislation that might have made it possible to reestablish emergency care in Belzoni.

Senate Bill 2735, passed during the 2022 legislative session, was created in an effort to operate freestanding emergency rooms in rural Mississippi. But ultimately, according to Whitwell, “The law wasn’t sufficient to get that accomplished.” No county has gotten an emergency room from this legislation, according to the state Health Department.

The bill’s principal author, Sen. Benjamin Suber of Bruce, said the legislation was an attempt at getting health care to parts of the state that needed it most, but admitted that he wasn’t sure if “it was gonna work or not.”

Suber did not know that Whitwell considered the bill flawed. 

“No one’s ever told me that, but we can do what we can to amend it,” he said. “If we needed to fix something, I would fix it. But that’s the first time someone’s ever said that to me.”

It was news to many residents that this law would not result in an emergency room in Belzoni. They had been waiting for years. 

Liddell was one of them surprised by the update.  

“This is hurtful,” he said. “Until the governor and every ally associated with him believes that the Delta is worthy of health care or other vital services … It doesn’t matter what color you are. You are a human being, and one day you’re going to get sick.”

Belzoni’s sons and daughters who moved elsewhere know that. The ones who stay, such as Byron, know that. The businesses that choose to establish themselves elsewhere know that. Broomfield, the county supervisor who lost his son, knows it, too. 

But after years of feeling like the state doesn’t care about his home, Broomfield doesn’t know what to do.

“The Legislature, they don’t do anything for the Delta,” he said. “They just don’t care nothing about us.”

One-year-old Mary Tatum Pearson explores decorations at the Second Annual Christmas Tree Lighting in Belzoni, Miss., on Monday, Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: Devna Bose/Mississippi Today

There’s something different about downtown Belzoni on an afternoon in early December: Specifically, noise.

A hum emanates from the center of town, where a towering Christmas tree, framed by a citrine Delta sunset, overlooks 5 p.m. traffic. For Belzoni, that means just a few more cars on the street than usual.

Emily Donovan, the economic foundation director, is bustling about, setting up tables and greeting guests at Belzoni’s Second Annual Christmas Tree Lighting and Farmers Market. 

State Rep. Timaka James-Jones is here, too, talking to longtime neighbors and friends. Vendors are selling local wares, such as Southern chow chow relish and a variety of pickled vegetables. Kids are chasing each other, breaths like little clouds in the cool evening air. 

Tiffany Ceasar zips up 5-year-old daughter Treasure Dulaney’s coat at the Second Annual Christmas Tree Lighting in Belzoni, Miss., on Monday, Dec. 5, 2023. Credit: Devna Bose/Mississippi Today

This is the Belzoni that Donovan knows and loves. This is the Belzoni that Donovan wants to see survive. 

Five-year-old Treasure Dulaney is one of the many children staring up at the Christmas tree in awe.

Her mom, Tiffany Ceasar, a lifelong Belzoni resident, didn’t think twice about raising her family in Belzoni. It’s home.

But before Treasure can go play with the other kids, Tiffany crouches down and zips up her daughter’s jacket. 

She’s always been prone to colds, and with no hospital in town, Tiffany doesn’t want to take any chances.

This story is part of “The Holdouts,” a reporting collaborative focused on the 10 states that have yet to expand Medicaid, which the Affordable Care Act authorized in 2010. The collaborative is a project of Public Health Watch.

The post A small town struggles to survive in the heart of Mississippi’s hospital crisis appeared first on Mississippi Today.

As agriculture has evolved in Mississippi, the state is losing its ‘middle class’ of farmers 

In the early 1930s, Mississippi had over 300,000 farmers, the most ever recorded for the state in federal census records. The last survey, from 2017, listed just around 55,000.

In the 1930s, the average farm size was around 50 acres. Today, it’s over 300 acres.

For decades from the early to mid 20th Century, Black farmers outnumbered white farmers in the state. Today, 86% of Mississippi’s farmers are white.

While agriculture is still the top employer in the state, who farms, what they farm, and who they sell to has changed greatly over the last century. Victim to many of those changes, experts say, is the so-called “middle class” of farmers.

“When we look at the decrease in farms over time, it’s largely that group of farmers, that medium scale,” said John Green, director of the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University.

Research shows that input costs – for livestock, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel and other needs – have climbed 70% since 1970 when adjusted for inflation. Green explained that those costs leave farmers more at risk, especially with the harmful climate impacts, such as drought and floods, that Mississippi has seen in recent years.

“There’s a lot more vulnerability for those farmers when there’s a bad year, so it makes it harder to stay in the game,” Green said.

Commissioner of Agriculture Andy Gipson, discusses the current status of farming and its future in the state, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023 at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Land is also more expensive due to higher demand, making it harder for newer farmers to buy in and easier for older farmers to cash out.

“It’s a story that can be told in every community,” State Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson told Mississippi Today. “Grandpa and grandma had a farm, and the family wants to keep the farm. Who’s going to run it? Well, this (kid’s) got another job, that one’s moving off. What happens is the farm sits there, and then, slowly, suburbanization comes along, some developer says, ‘I’ll offer you so much for that land,’ and suddenly they don’t have the reason to keep that farm anymore.”

All of these factors are making it harder for farmers in the middle, Gipson explained: Small farmers, like the ones selling fruits and vegetables to farmers markets, will always have demand. Large operations, with technological advantages like an irrigation system, can weather a bad year.

“Most of our farmers in Mississippi have another job to pay the bills,” Gipson said. “That’s that middle group of farmers. They’re at most risk of getting out (of the business) because there comes a point at which the input costs are so expensive that it’s not worth it financially to keep going.”

But Gipson also pointed out that, despite Mississippi having only a tenth of the number of farms it once had, production from the agriculture sector is at an all-time high. With new technology, he explained, farmers can grow more with the same amount of land.

Farm equipment is nearly submerged in flood water in north Issaquena County, Miss., Friday, April 5, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

“The good news is we’ve seen our production of agriculture, as far as the number of products, the amount of products, food and fiber and timber, continue to go up,” Gipson said.

If production is at an all-time high, then why does it matter that Mississippi has only a fraction of the farms and farmers that it used to?

For one, farmers are getting older. As Green and two other MSU researchers wrote about recently, the average age of farmers in the U.S. grew from 50 to 57 since 1978. In Mississippi, the average is 59. Their research looks at barriers for new farmers entering the trade, as well as programs like 4-H trying to engage younger farmers and reverse the aging trend.

But also, the loss of middle-tier farms has disrupted the cultural and economic identity of rural areas around the state.

Carlton Turner, a Utica native, said his grandfather worked for years as a farmer on their family land until, eventually, there wasn’t enough money coming in and he had to find a new job. Today, Turner said, the job opportunities in his hometown are harder to come by.

The Sipp Culture Community Farm in Uitca, used for the group's Small Farm Apprentice Program. Credit: Carlton Turner

“A town like Utica, that has a long history of agricultural production, the only industry here is a sawmill,” he said. “And that doesn’t provide enough jobs for the community, so the community has to go out to work in other areas.”

Turner, founder of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, is working to revive agricultural interest in rural, predominantly Black areas that have lost farms over the years. The loss of Black farmers in Mississippi, he said, came from both the Great Migration as well as the mechanization of farming, which reduced the need for labor.

“The food system went from being many local producers that were producing for themselves and for their local communities, to consolidating to larger farms and larger, commercial agricultural industries,” he said. “We've yielded a lot of that power away from our communities in which there's few people that are basically creating the industry and the food for many people.”

Turner also emphasized the wellness impacts of losing small and middle-tier farms, especially in one of the least healthy and most food insecure states. Restoring people’s connection with locally grown food would help reverse that trend, he explained.

“We have some of the most fertile land, but our (health statistics are) the lowest in the country,” he said. “That is directly connected to our food systems. We need more farmers producing high quality, locally sourced whole foods because we don't have the quality of health and wellness that we deserve as a state and as a community.”

Other local farmers are also working to fill in the gap Turner mentioned. Cindy Ayers Elliott, for instance, runs the 68-acre Foot Print Farms in Jackson, which aims to bring young people into agriculture and build the supply of locally grown, healthy foods.

In the 1930s, vegetables like sweet potatoes, cabbages, and tomatoes – not including commodity crops like corn and soybeans – made up over 160,000 acres of the state’s farmland, and tens of thousands of farms grew fruit like apples, pears, and peaches. Today, less than 40,000 acres are used for vegetables – again, excluding corn and soybeans – and just a few hundred farms grow fruit.

As far as solutions, Gipson pointed to workforce development programs that the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce has set up to reach young people, in addition to local 4-H clubs and the state’s Future Farmers of America chapter. He also said a priority is helping family farms set up succession plans, so that farms stay active for future generations.

Commissioner of Agriculture Andy Gipson, discusses the current status of farming and its future in the state, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023 at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

“Farming today is high technology,” Gipson said, describing the computerized systems now used to harvest timber and row crops. “And it’s our young people who know how to do that. Connecting our young people to farms is the answer, not only for Mississippi's long term economic viability, because agriculture is far and away our largest industry, but also in terms of keeping our young people here.”

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