ATLANTA — One-hundred-and-twenty-five miles southeast of Atlanta, Jimmy Brewer shows off silos in Laurens County holding 15,000 bushels each of sesame seed that he and other farmers hope become Georgia’s next big cash crop.
Meanwhile, in Tifton, University of Georgia researchers are working to develop new varieties of lettuce and kale that could help the state’s farmers meet growing national demand for crops devastated by drought in California.
While movies, cars and technology have benefited from much of the economic hoopla in recent years, farming remains Georgia’s oldest and biggest industry, with a $70 billion impact. State agricultural leaders say this year might be the biggest yet. And they believe Georgia could be on the cusp of even greater growth, fueled by sweat and dirt and a willingness to experiment and change.
“If there’s a product that can be grown in this part of the country and the consumer wants it, I think we can find a grower to try it,” said Zippy Duvall, the president of the Georgia Farm Bureau.
There are fewer farms in Georgia than there were a generation ago, yet the value of agricultural products sold in the state shot up to $9.25 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. What Georgians grow and how they grow it has changed dramatically as well, whether it’s a precipitous drop in cattle and pigs or equally significant spikes in poultry. What’s being harvested from the state’s famous red dirt, too, is different: Corn is down and tobacco has plummeted, while cotton remains steady despite increasingly difficult economics.
The most explosive growth in the state, perhaps, has come from blueberries. Blueberries blew past peaches as the state’s top fruit in 2008 and kept on going. As recently as 2007 there were 4,800 acres of blueberries planted in Georgia, but by 2014 the little blue fruit occupied more than 16,600 acres, an increase of more than 245 percent in seven years.
Rusty Bell has seen the industry explode. He’s been farming blueberries for 30 years in the Pierce County town of Bristol, between Jesup and Waycross.
Back then, Bell said, “You could put the handful of us in a small room.”
Bell said blueberries’ growth in Georgia was fueled, in part, by tobacco’s demise.
“People were looking for different things,” Bell said. “Other commodities were not paying as much per acre. The blueberries, they’re a little bit higher value crop.”
But a bigger impetus likely came from the Michigan Blueberry Growers, a farmers cooperative that in the 1980s was looking for a state with milder winters that could bring blueberries to market earlier in the year.
“They helped Georgia get started back then. We’ve grown. We had 96 million pounds last year,” Bell said.
Still, he said, blueberries aren’t for those looking for an easy buck.
“It looks real attractive on paper,” he said. “Until they get knee-deep into it and then they see the work.”
State Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black thinks UGA deserves credit for blueberries’ success, too.
There may not be “more of a perfect laboratory example of the impact of the land grant university,” Black said.
UGA professor Scott Nesmith, who works at the College of Agriculture facility in Griffin, is a plant breeder who 25 years ago began working on blueberry varieties that would work in the state. His work was then shared with university extension agents who shared it with farmers.
“They took plant varieties, began to improve them and then you get the exponential growth,” Black said.
Bell said the blueberry industry in Georgia has grown so much it’s nearing the saturation point. Other farmers are now looking for the next big thing.
“There are future blueberry phenomenons coming, but I don’t know that anybody’s got the crystal ball to say,” said Jack Spruill, the state’s agriculture marketing director. “The market will control it. Availability, seasonality, what are we going to do? I don’t know.”
Brewer, in Laurens County, thinks it’s sesame. The veteran row-crop farmer turned to sesame two years ago and planted 900 acres. In 2014, he doubled that, and this year he’s planting 2,500 acres.
Why? Economics. Brewer figures it costs $60 to $180 an acre to grow sesame, while peanuts, cotton and corn can cost up to $600 an acre.
“It’s just a crop that doesn’t require much maintenance,” Brewer said.
Droughts in Texas and Oklahoma, the two main states for growing sesame, sent major producers looking for new markets. Brewer heard about sesame being planted in north Florida and eastern Alabama and set out to see what the fuss was about. Now, Brewer said he and other sesame pioneers can’t keep up with demand.
Like Brewer, others are experimenting with new crops, new methods and new tools to find an edge. Duvall, the Farm Bureau president, said canola has great potential. At least two farms near Savannah are growing ginger. There’s even a movement to return sugar cane to Sapelo Island, and a handful of farms in South Georgia see great promise with olive oil.
One small but growing sector of the state’s agriculture economy has been driven purely by consumer demand: the all-natural farm.
There are two main classes of natural farms. Organic farms are certified and regulated by the USDA and are typically larger operations that sell to distributors and grocery store chains. Smaller farms often participate in the peer-inspection program known as Certified Naturally Grown. Like organic farms, however, CNG farms do not use artificial fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides. Of the more than 700 farms and apiaries nationally that carry the CNG imprimatur, 129 are in Georgia. According to the USDA, there were only 90 certified organic farms in Georgia in 2012, with total sales of $5.73 million. But that was up from $2 million in 2007.
The growth in organic farming leads to a natural tension between all-natural and traditional methods of farming.
Much of the produce Ricky James grows at his farm in Dillard ends up in grocery stores across the state and region, but a lot is also sold at his family’s roadside stand on a hill overlooking the fields and the Little Tennessee River. Some of those who stop at the little market, James said, ask for organic produce, which he doesn’t grow. James, like many in the industry, prefers to focus on “local” rather than organic.
Which is better, they ask, an organic tomato from California, Florida or Mexico, or a local mater grown down the street?
“It gets to consumer choice,” said Black, the state agriculture commissioner. “Consumer choice will always drive the market.”
There, again, is proof of farmers’ financial smarts and their willingness to adjust. Consumers want organic food and are willing to spend twice as much on it? Some farmers will make it happen.
Major media outlets, such as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The New York Times and the webzine The Bitter Southerner, have written love letters to White Oak Pastures, the Bluffton farm where Will Harris transitioned his traditional cattle farm to organic in the mid-1990s. Now, his products, which have expanded to include pork, lamb, chicken, eggs and some produce, are sought after by restaurants and consumers eager for naturally raised, humanely processed meat.
While Harris is likely the best-known organic success story in Georgia, more are hoping to join him. At his farm in Pine Mountain, Addis Bugg is aiming for all-natural. Bugg grew up on the farm but just returned this year after a career in the Marine Corps.
Bugg is growing broccoli, cabbage, corn, kale, onions, three types of potatoes, watermelon and several other types of fruit on his 150-acre farm near Pine Mountain. He sells his produce at local farmers markets and through contracts thanks to a local farmers cooperative.
“We’re all-natural here,” said Bugg, who is aiming to be licensed as a certified naturally grown farm. “We go to market, the first thing people want to know is where it came from and how it’s grown. I feel great saying it’s naturally grown. That’s what the customer wants. And it’s important to me.”
Johnathan Burns, a chicken farmer in Carroll County, understands why consumers are concerned about how their food is grown or raised and why farmers will meet those demands.
“There is plenty of room in the marketplace,” he said. “If you don’t mind paying 21/2 times as much for a free-range chicken, great.”
But he also understands the limitations of the organic movement.
“You’re not going to be able to feed the world on that model,” he said. “You’re not going to produce enough chickens or meat to feed the world.”
What’s new on the farm isn’t always the crop.
The father-and-son duo of Chuck and Matt Coley grows 3,400 acres of cotton in Vienna. There’s tremendous value in that little white bulb. From 2008 to 2013, revenue derived from cotton in Georgia increased more than 100 percent to more than $1.21 billion, according to an annual UGA study. But those 2013 sales were down $100 million from the year before and prices continue to be below costs.
Farmers with an operation as large as theirs look to technology for an advantage. The Coleys have self-driving tractors that can increase their yield by 10 percent, sensors buried around the farm to manage irrigation and soil consultants who pinpoint which fields need what kind of fertilizer and when.
The consultants produce a report showing each field on the Coley farm with color-coded zones. Each color represents a different need: This zone needs more potassium, which fields more phosphorus.
While each technological advance adds to the cost of doing business, it also helps the Coleys save money and resources. Rather than water or fertilize entire fields, the sensors and consultants allow for an exactness that didn’t exist when Chuck Coley first started helping his father.
“It allows you to be a lot more efficient on the farm, a lot more effective in your spraying and your planting,” Matt Coley said. “It’s eliminated a lot of overlap and waste that we had years ago.”
While many, like the Coleys, will doggedly stay true to their farming traditions, more change is likely coming to Georgia agriculture. The drought that has gripped much of California for the past 18 months and devastated crops shows no sign of easing. Already, major food distributors are looking for farmers elsewhere to fill in the gaps.
It’s a delicate subject for many whose living is greatly at the mercy of the weather.
“Georgia farmers are very faithful people,” the Farm Bureau’s Duvall said. “Agriculture is a big family, and we don’t want any part of our family to suffer. But in that process, to keep agriculture stable, I’m sure there are some markets in the areas that are not able to grow in California that are asking Georgians to grow it.”
Spruill, the state ag marketing chief, said the drought out west is “going to open a lot of doors and we don’t even know what they are.”
Recently, he said, a multibillion-dollar supplier to grocery chains met with state officials to discuss how the western drought has created a strawberry shortage. The supplier, Spruill said, complained: “ ‘We don’t have enough strawberries. We can’t buy enough strawberries to fill our demands.’ ”
In 2012, according to the USDA, only 140 acres of strawberries were planted in Georgia, compared with nearly 41,000 acres in California. Getting Georgia farmers to suddenly plant more strawberries to meet the demand is not as simple as it might sound.
“We grow some beautiful strawberries in Georgia,” Spruill said. “They’re wonderful. But there is this tiny window to do it because of seasonality. Can we develop a plant that will mature later, produce longer?”
Spruill believes scientists at UGA and other researchers can develop a strawberry plant more attuned to Georgia’s soil and climate. But that could take years.
UGA horticulture professor Tim Coolong says at the university’s Tifton campus he’s testing different varieties of lettuce and kale, as direct result of the California drought, hoping to find some that work in Georgia.
“Lettuce is grown almost exclusively on the West Coast, so all the breeding and varieties have been selected for there,” Coolong said. “It’s not as easy as saying, ‘We have water, let’s grow it.’ ”
He and his research team planted 50 types of lettuce last year.
“Some did OK, but a lot did very poorly because they’re bred for the Central Valley (of California),” Coolong said. “We still have some work to do.”
But finding a lettuce variety that thrives in Georgia is just the first challenge. Most crops aren’t interchangeable for farmers.
A peanut farmer, for example, would have to invest thousands, if not millions, of dollars to switch to lettuce. Most of his tractors and other equipment wouldn’t work for ground crops such as lettuce. It’s different equipment, different technology, different fertilizers.
Black, the state agriculture commissioner, whose job it is to keep Georgia’s giant agriculture industry healthy and growing, said he is certain Georgia farmers will find a way to meet consumer demand.
“Agriculture is not what we do until we can find something else better to do,” Black said. “It’s what we must do. It’s what we’re meant to do.”
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