By Guest Columnist SUSAN VARLAMOFF, director of the Office of Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
As families gather around the Thanksgiving table this year, some will be serving food produced on Georgia farms. My family will dine on turkey grazed at White Oak Pastures, a fourth generation farm in south Georgia. And our vegetables will come from Loganville’s Three Peas in a Pod farmer’s market.
This past summer I attended the Georgia Organics’ Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival and found myself among 800 exuberant people—teenagers to 70 somethings—enjoying drinks and dishes infused with locally grown tomatoes of all varieties.
Kroger, Publix and Walmart now promote Georgia-grown foods and sometimes feature the farmer who supplies it. South Georgia vegetable farmer Bill Brim boasts in an advertisement that he can load up his truck with produce in the morning and unload it at Atlanta Kroger stores in the afternoon.
Universities are sourcing local food for their cafeterias and growing vegetables in campus gardens. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed expects to “bring local food within 10 minutes of 75 percent of all residents by 2020” as part of his sustainability plan.
A local foods phenomenon is sweeping the country, and Georgia is joining in.
Georgia is a big state with soils and climates that allow us to grow an enormous variety of food nearly year-round. Many of our farmers work hard to provide food in ways that protect the environment and reconnect the consumer with their food.
The economic impact of buying food grown in Georgia is huge. A 2010 University of Georgia study states that if each Georgia household purchased $10 worth of Georgia-grown produce each week, the value to the state’s economy is nearly $2 billion.
Growing food takes technical knowhow. The UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has supported local agriculture since its inception in 1887. As the state’s land-grant university, the college teaches researched-based agricultural practices to Georgia farmers through Cooperative Extension and trains students in agriculture and the careers that support it.
Student enrollment has spiked to record levels, which in part reflects the strong public interest in local food production. In addition to a four-year curriculum and graduate programs, the college offers a certificate program in organic agriculture and will be adding one in local food systems next fall. Students learn in the classroom and at an organic farm close to campus. Food grown there is turned into delicious meals served in the Georgia Center’s restaurant.
With its long history supporting the state’s biggest industry (agriculture pulls in $65 billion a year to the state’s economy), the college has honed its ability to help Georgia farmers produce safe, nutritious food in a sustainable manner.
For example, the college teaches no-till practices in which farmers plant their crops in the previous season’s cover crops. This increases soil carbon levels to help mitigate climate change. Precision irrigation uses technology advances, GPS and soil moisture sensors to give crops the water they need without wasting that precious resource. Research on providing habitats for beneficial insects is under way to manage insect pests without pesticides.
Food safety is another forte of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. UGA’s internationally renowned food scientists are called upon often to identify foodborne contaminants. They conduct research on practical ways for small farmers to avoid potential contamination.
Cooperative Extension agents, trained in agricultural and natural resource issues as well as family and consumer sciences and youth programs, live and work in communities throughout Georgia. They relay the latest researched-based practices to farmers.
Agents also teach people skills through community gardens. In these tough economic times, community gardens are feeding the homeless, unemployed, prisoners and others struggling with issues such as addiction and abuse. Agents have gone one step further and helped 42 communities set up farmers markets to bolster their economies.
The college’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development’s MarketMaker website gives anyone with computer access a means to locate local food.
Finally, agents have trained more than 5,000 Master Gardeners in sustainable gardening practices. Master Gardeners further spread local food knowledge to schools, churches and other institutions by planting vegetable gardens.
Local food is an important part of Georgia. So as you prepare your Thanksgiving meal, choose Georgia-grown food when possible. And as we bow our heads to give thanks, please include a blessing for the farmers who made it possible.