How technology is changing the farming industry in Georgia
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 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.” According to him, 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, however, 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.