By Saba Long
“Agriculture and Commerce.” It’s the motto on the back (or front) of our two-sided state seal. And as State Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black reminded the audience in his keynote address at last week’s Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, we participate in the state’s agriculture industry three times per day.
From 1776 to present day, agriculture is big business for the state, generating more than $71 billion in economic activity, and it accounts for 87,000 full and part-time jobs.
Georgia is leading the nation in blueberry and pecan production and third in cucumber sales. Cotton is the number two commodity in the state, and we have 43 slaughter houses. State agriculture leaders now participate in international trade missions, increasing the local output.
Those numbers should shed some light as to why Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have worked together on freight transportation matters and the deepening of the Savannah port.
Joining Black for the Roundtable discussion, “Farm to Fork: Transforming Georgia’s Local Food System,” were Jenni Harris of White Oak Pastures; Julia Gaskin with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; and moderator Don Cooper of Georgia Organics.
For most, the “Georgia Grown” moniker conjures up images of leafy vegetables and juicy fruits, but Harris shed some light on her farm’s impact on the local meat industry.
A fifth generation farmer, she returned to Early County after college to join the family business as its marketing manager. White Oak Pasture’s grass-fed beef, poultry and lamb are sold at Whole Foods and Publix.
It’s also the only farm in the state to have USDA monitored and approved abattoirs for both its red and white meat. By capitalizing on consumer trends and sustainable processing techniques, they have grown from five to 85 employees in just a few years.
According to UGA’s College of Agriculture, the state has experienced remarkable growth in the number of local farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). Documentaries such as Food, Inc. and the recent discussions regarding Monsanto and the production of genetically modified food have heightened consumers’ interests in where the food comes from.
Gaskin noted the importance of providing Georgia growers with the necessary infrastructure to get their produce to the wholesale market, including local school systems. For farms too small to provide the quantity necessary for wholesalers, they can work with a food hub.
A cross-country emerging trend, food hubs can serve as a way for farmers to provide their produce locally but on a broader scale. According to Farm Aid, they are broadly defined as facilities that manage the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution or marketing of locally and regionally produced food. Food hubs can help farmers manage their supply to meet demand, provide healthy options for food deserts and support rural economies.
Commissioner Black appropriately noted his office is closely monitoring the Farm Bill and its potential impact on Georgia’s agriculture community – particularly as it relates to food inspections. He strongly hinted that he would rather the state take a larger role in shaping the future of agriculture, with less federal involvement.
The next generation of farming will likely continue to promote local food options while increasing Georgia’s exports. The state continues to excel in this deeply-rooted and increasingly-diversified agricultural industry.