TIFTON — Agribusiness contributes $73 billion to Georgia’s $972 billion economy each year, according to the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, with 383,600 Georgians working in agriculture, forestry or a related field.
Agribusiness is more than farming a row crop such as peanuts or tobacco.
It encompasses everything from growing crops, such as cotton, watermelon, peaches and cucumbers, to raising animals such as chickens, cattle, horses and hogs, to growing pines for timber and pecans trees for pecans.
In the SunLight Project coverage area – Valdosta, Moultrie, Thomasville, Dalton, Milledgeville and Tifton, Ga., and Live Oak, Fla. – agriculture plays a large role in local communities.
According to the UGA CAED, the top 10 commodities Georgia agriculture produces are broilers (9- to 12-week-old chickens), cotton, eggs, timber, peanuts, beef, greenhouse plants, dairy, pecans and blueberries.
In 2016, Georgia was ranked first in the United States as a producer of broilers, peanuts, eggs, pecans and onions, second in the country in cotton production and third in the country in watermelon and blueberry production, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
At roughly 9 percent of economic output, farming is the largest sector in Georgia by far.
Although the percentage of Americans working on farms is minuscule compared to 100 years ago, production has increased dramatically during that period. For many small towns, the revenue generated by farmers is spent on trucks, tractors, clothes and thousands of other goods and services, making it vital to those communities.
Sydni Barwick, Thomas County agriculture and natural resources extension service agent, explained the diversity of areas beyond the farm affected by agribusiness.
"Agriculture plays a huge role in our community and employs farm managers and operators," she said, "as well as crop insurance agents, truck drivers, welders, accountants, mechanics, educators, well drillers, cotton gin employees, peanut buying point employees, vegetable packing shed employees, irrigation dealers, electricians, bankers, brokers, fuel company employees, fertilizer and other input dealers, veterinarians, agricultural aviators, UGA employees, and USDA employees. Our community would look vastly different without the influence of agriculture."
According to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, Lafayette County, Fla., located in the agricultural-dominant North Florida area, ranked third in the state when it came to milk produced.
And while Lafayette County was big in dairies as well as pigs and hogs — also ranked third in the state in 2012 — Suwannee County is the top poultry producing county in Florida. Nearly 7 million broilers and other meat-type chickens came from the county six years ago. Lafayette was third with just more than 1 million with Hamilton County, Fla., fourth in poultry production.
IMPACT ON COMMUNITIES
Agribusiness has an enormous effect on local communities, both by its presence and absence, according to state officials and farmers.
In areas where agriculture is still a strong economic driver, the impact on the community is strongly felt.
Colquitt County led the state in farm gate value in 2016 at almost $550 million, Colquitt is tops in cabbage and zucchinis and also the number one county in the state in vegetable revenue. It is second in bell peppers, cantaloupes, eggplants, greens and squash, and third in cucumbers and sweet corn.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of farming to the economies of small towns. Merchants in Moultrie can tell when it’s been a bad farm year due to drought or low prices for commodities.
In Tift County, the total economic contribution of ag-, food- and fiber-related industries to the local economy is more than $384 million.
Justin Hand, Tift County agriculture and natural resources extension agent, said that largest commodity in Tift is vegetables.
“About 60 percent of what we produce in Tift County is going to be vegetables,” he said. “Everything from okra to 10 or 12 different kinds of peppers, squash, zucchini, cantaloupes, greens. We have a lot of those. We’re number one in cantaloupe production in the state, we’re number one in greens production. I think we’re second or third in watermelon production. Cotton and peanuts, and a little bit of tobacco and soybeans. We don’t have any poultry. There’s an ordinance, I think, that doesn’t allow you to have chicken houses, largely due to the smell.”
Hand said the farm gate value of crops coming off farms is $176 million for Tift County.
Farm gate value is the market value of the product multiplied by the weight minus the selling costs, such as transport costs and marketing costs.
Adding the ag contribution, which is how it directly or indirectly affects an industry, the total is $462 million, Hand said.
“Once you account for the direct and indirect industries, ag is going to account for 13 percent of the employment in Tift County,” Hand said. “It’s 15 percent of the total economy. That’s the farmer, the people selling ag inputs, the feed store, the people the feed store buys from, the truckers that haul stuff, everything directly or indirectly that is affected by ag in Tift County.”
Jessica Brim Kirk, director of food safety and marketing for Lewis Taylor Farms in Tift County, said the farm is the second or third largest employer in Tift County.
“We’re one of the largest produce and agricultural business owners in the Southeast,” she said. “We have about 715 employees. We’re busy year-round and we stay busy.”
Lewis Taylor Farms, which was established approximately 60 years ago, produces 7,000 acres of produce such as squash, eggplant cucumber, bell peppers, specialty peppers, strawberries, a variety of greens, broccoli and melons. It utilizes greenhouses to grow transplants they then ship to other farms and institutions, and an average of 85 million pine tree seedlings, which are shipped out and used for timber and reforestation.
“We have our own packing facilities,” Kirk said. “We have our own shipping docks, all our own sales team, we do everything here at the farm.”
Thomas County farmer and long-time Commissioner Ken Hickey said agriculture is as important as it has always been, but awareness of its importance is diminishing.
In Thomas County and most surrounding counties, agriculture is the No. 1 revenue source, Hickey said.
"And that's the way it's always been," he said.
If agriculture has a good year, people spend money, and it is a good year countywide, he said.
In production, Thomas County has the widest planting range the community has had in a while.
Thomas Extension Agent Barwick said nearly one-third of the cotton crop has been planted much later than usual this year – after the second week of June. Planting after this date reduces the crop's yield potential.
"Early season dry weather with frequent rains to follow have impacted our cotton crops root system, making it very shallow," she said. “Well-timed rains will be important for the rest of the season to keep our dryland crop from getting excessively drought stressed. Other factors, like the weather, insect and disease pressure, will also influence the remainder of the season."
The importance of agriculture is growing exponentially, Barwick said.
The United Nations predicts the world population will reach 9.7 billion people in 2050 — "and we will need to feed, clothe and house all of these people," Barwick said. To make it possible, agricultural technology must continue to improve, she said.
While Baldwin County no longer sustains the large-scale agriculture of the past, its unusual mix of Georgia Red Clay and drier, sandier soil still supports some crops.
The county had 124 registered farms as of its most recent count in 2012, according to the 2017 edition of the Georgia County Guide from the University of Georgia statewide extension office, which provides access to statewide programs and information to Baldwin County farmers.
While the report lists the biggest crop in Baldwin as hay, the county has several tree and poultry farms near its southern border, and a few small, organic farms have taken root in recent years. While employers such as Georgia College, Central Georgia Tech and the ever-growing row of shops and restaurants along 441 provide diverse employment for county residents, Baldwin County Commissioner Sammy Hall said he would like to see farming have a greater impact in coming years.
In the decades after World War ll, Baldwin County residents relied on agriculture as one of the major drivers of its economy. Part of the fertile swath of farmland stretching from coastal Georgia north and west, Baldwin County was a major producer of dairy, poultry and other crops for many years. Although agriculture was once a major part of the Baldwin County economy, changes in the county’s employment pool have pushed younger workers into other industries in recent decades.
“Agriculture in Baldwin County is not what it once was,” Hall said. “Going back when I was young, farming was pretty large – there were a large number of dairy farms, row crop farming, poultry farms. Now, the biggest thing we have in farming is forestry. Agriculture in terms of row crops, dairy and things like that does not have the effect on the county that it once did.”
Mostly gone are the small family farms that dotted the North Florida landscape a generation ago. Instead, huge commercial farms now dominate.
This trend holds true in Georgia and North Florida, due to a variety of issues ranging from the expense of getting started and keeping up with changes in technology, to the stress of operating a farm and difficulty with regulations.
At one time in the nation’s history, farmers made up about 90 percent of the U.S. population; now it is less than 2 percent. After World War II, the population began to shift.
“The farms had to get larger due to scale of economy,” said Cliff Starling, a Suwannee County farmer and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences employee, explaining the price of corn, for example, was about the same 50 years ago as it is now while the price of production has continued to rise.
Part of the trend to larger farms can be directed to the decline of tobacco.
“As tobacco phased out after the buyout, some of the farmers who grew tobacco, they had to get a little bit bigger and expand in order to sustain themselves economically because tobacco was such a cash crop,” said De Broughton, commercial crops agent at the UF/IFAS Suwannee County Extension office. “Now they’re either having to get bigger or get out and find another job.”
Starling added: “Almost everybody had a patch of tobacco. Every farm had a tobacco allotment or rented a tobacco allotment. So all the other stuff they had on the farm supported the tobacco in order to make that farm’s living.”
Instead, some farms grew in size. Other farmers, such as Starling, farm part-time while also working another job.
That job subsidizes the farm.
As he travels across North Florida helping other farmers implement best management practices mandated by state legislation, he understands their needs and concerns because he's also a farmer.
“He has to enroll in BMPs and he’s asking farmers to enroll in BMPs,” Broughton said. “He has to go through the same process.”
Starling said there are times he’ll even use his farm as a testing ground for certain things before he’ll pass them along to other producers.
It also allows him to see how some suggested BMPs may not work for all farms and all operations. While technology in agriculture is constantly expanding, some of that, such as soil moisture probes, aren’t sensible for Starling and his 40-acre farm. It also wouldn’t be beneficial to some commercial farms that aren’t irrigated.
“There comes a point that you can’t really afford some of the technology,” he said, adding, “we’re doing (some) of the stuff that was done by our great-great-grandfathers out on our place.”
Jason Ridley has been a farmer only about six years, but he says he's been around farming his entire life. After spending 13 years working as a lending officer at banks and farm credit unions, helping farmers grow their businesses, he started 4 Oaks Farm and Produce, which grows organic vegetables and free-range chickens and chicken eggs, in northern Murray County.
"Everything has gotten so automated now. Like every other industry. It just doesn't take as many people," he said.
But the cost of capital has also squeezed smaller operations, he said.
"When my grandparents were farming, you could put up a couple of chicken houses and bring in some extra income," he said. "Now, you've got to have at least four or six or more houses to make money because the input costs are so high. The houses alone can cost $250,000 to $350,000 to build. If you build six of those, your investment can be $2 million, and that's if you already own the property. When I was in banking, I saw operations where the people they hired were making more money than the owner-operator."
He said that's why more farmers have begun to diversify.
Ridley said the tremendous increase in U.S. natural gas production, and the fall in prices, has been a big boon to farmers, especially to poultry farmers. Locally, many farmers have switched to natural gas from propane to heat chicken houses in the winter.
"That (switching to natural gas) has taken some houses that were breaking even or maybe even losing money and made them profitable," he said.
Tift Extension Agent Hand said the industry is trying to produce more with less.
“We’re running out of farm land,” he said. “Farmers are aging. It’s not easy for new people to get into farming, it's a process.”
There have been a lot of changes to the agriculture industry, mostly in the realm of technology.
Technology both helps the farmer increase yield but is also expensive. In many cases technology cannot take the place of human labor, but the cost of that labor and the rules that regulate it sometimes make things difficult.
Events that play out on the international stage have a direct impact on agribusiness on the local level.
The largest change in the industry is in technology.
Large-scale operations are using state-of-the-art equipment and innovative practices as well as diversifying to stay ahead of the game and continually increase yield while keeping overhead down.
Justin Hand, Tift County agriculture and natural resources extension agent, said that changes in technology has been the single biggest change in agriculture as an industry.
“As far as technology goes, you’re looking at anything from legit computer tech in the tractors to chemicals to having apps on their phones to turn pivots on from across town,” he said. “All you need is a wifi signal. It’s coming along, and it’s big business, too. It’s not just the plows and the cotton and the old beat-up tractors anymore. It’s a legit industry. It affects so much.”
This includes both changes in farming practices, such as when and how often to spray pesticides and fungicides, to creating Round-Up resistant strains of cotton and using tech such as iPads and drones to automate processes.
“We have a lot of progressive farmers in Tift County,” he said. “We’ve got a couple that are like, 'Well grandpa aways did it this way,' but we actually have a lot of progressive farmers that are really on the cutting edge.”
Technology utilization makes the difference, he said. Some outfits have precision planting equipment and their irrigation systems will have water probes throughout the field, so it will gauge when to water and where to water, which also helps with water conservation.
Hand said technology gives them an edge compared to those who aren’t utilizing it.
“At the end of the day when they go and pull yield on them, those guys are always going to be higher,” Hand said. “More input obviously, but they’ll have a higher, better crop nine times out of 10.”
Hand said another example of being on the cutting edge is a resource he calls “peanut RX.”
It is a survey that helps farmers know when in the growth cycle to spray their peanuts, what to watch out for and how often to spray, based on records of peanuts grown in that field or area.
“I go back to mule days, when I was a boy,” said Louie Perry, a Colquitt County farmer, who was born in 1939. “I was there when the first tractor came to the farm.”
“The ’50s is when they got to going pretty strong,” Perry said of tractors and other machinery. “When I went to college we had three tractors, all 50 horsepower or less.”
In the early days of tractors, the cost could be as little as $400 — still a lot of money in the early 1900s. Today, a 115-horsepower John Deere can start in the range of $100,000 and a huge cotton picker can fetch $700,000.
The larger farms that have emerged need bigger machines. In addition to getting bigger, just like most people’s phones, tractors are getting smarter.
Huge irrigation pivots powered by electricity or natural gas water huge fields of row crops; drip irrigation is used on vegetables.
Using GPS technology, for instance, farmers can plow in the spring — with the tractor steering itself through the field and being turned around by the operator at the end of the row. Then at harvest time, the tractor can drive itself in the exact same path, increasing the amount of cotton picked.
But Brian Corbett, co-owner of Ty-Core Farms in Lowndes County, said not a lot has changed in the farming business in the last 15 years.
As far as picking technology goes, it’s pretty much the same, but packaging and marketing is becoming a much bigger issue, he said.
“We’re getting orders where we have to put stickers on every pepper,” Corbett said. “So we have to buy equipment that will apply the stuff to it and other things like that.”
Corbett grew up in farming. His dad started growing tobacco until the tobacco companies bought his farm in the early 2000s, Corbett said. Now, he grows and sells fresh vegetables all over the eastern United States. Ty-Core Farms sells about 1.2 million packages a year to cities mostly along the East Coast.
Its number one cash crop is bell peppers, but it also grows about seven different kinds of crops, including eggplants, cabbage and zucchini.
Global positioning system planting is a new trend in agriculture.
"A lot of people are going to the precision farming to try to save money, cut costs, make it more economical," said Ken Hickey, a Thomas County farmer.
GPS is set on a tractor, the operator releases the steering wheel, and the GPS decides the row for planting and guides the tractor to the end of the row, where the operator turns the tractor around. The GPS method is repeated on the next row.
GPS also is used to fertilize, spray and gather crops.
"If you sit still and never do anything, you'll never get ahead," said Hickey, a longtime Thomas County commissioner.
Jessica Brim Kirk, director of food safety and marketing at Lewis Taylor Farms in Tift County, said the farm uses drones to look at the overall slope of the land and help with planning out what crop to plant where, as well as working with researchers to implement cutting-edge practices in the field.
“We do a lot of work hand in hand with the University of Georgia and extension,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everybody. They learn something, we learn something in turn and it’s a more hands-on learning experience for the kids.”
Kirk said things have changed in the industry even since she was a little girl, growing up on the farm.
“Everything’s done by GPS,” she said. “It’s not done by hand anymore. There’s so many different crops. We grow both organics and conventional vegetables now.”
She said that one issue that she sees is a lot of misinformation concerning agriculture.
“People aren’t educated about what stuff is, what it means and why it’s done one way or another,” she said.
She gave genetically modified organisms as an example. Many people have a problem with GMOs because they think they are something like a franken-food, cooked up in a lab that will harm people who consume it.
“Most of your consumables, although they may have created a genetically modified version of it, they’re not on the market,” she said. “Most people don’t realize that. You can’t go to the store and buy GMO squash, it doesn’t exist. They have it in cotton and in corn, but it’s for feed corn for livestock, not for people to eat.”
She said humans have been modifying things they eat since they began cultivating crops during the early days of human civilization.
“I ask people if they eat broccoli,” Kirk said. “They always say yes, and I tell them they’re eating a GMO because years and years and years ago broccoli was modified from what it was, not using our current technology but using the technology they had at the time to create broccoli as we know it.”
Kirk refers to other results of modifying foods through selective breeding, such as mangos and wheat, adding there is no scientific proof these plants have harmed anyone.
Kirk said organic foods have misinformation swirling around them. She said organics are still sprayed with pesticides, but spraying organics is very unregulated, whereas conventional crops are highly regulated.
“They can spray as much as they want,” she said, referring to organics. “There’s no limits on how much they can spray. So honestly, you’re probably getting more pesticides on an organic than you are on a conventional.”
Kirk said she started a Facebook page and an Instagram account to combat the misinformation and help educate people. The use of social media for promotion and education is yet another way agriculture and technology are becoming intwined.
LABOR AND REGULATION
Hand said local governments seem to be supportive of agriculture in their communities.
“They don’t get in the way,” he said, but the federal government can get in the way, sometimes. "I think it’s better than it had been, from what I can gather from everyone.”
He said farmers growing cotton and soybeans are worried about China, but most farmers are focusing on the North American Fair Trade Agreement.
“I think all the farmers like free trade because it helps them easily get their products around to different places,” Hand said. “But for example, there were several hundred loads of produce dumped in California last week, and obviously that’s going to drop our prices here because we’re a big vegetable county. So we’ve actually had a few farmers have to leave product in the field because they couldn’t afford to pick it this year because of a big produce dump from Mexico.”
Hand gave cucumbers as an example, saying Mexico is selling cucumbers for $7 a box and Georgia cucumbers cost $9 a box before it even leaves the packing shed.
Farms that left product in the field allowed people to come in and pick what they wanted and donated a lot of that product to food banks, too.
“They try to give out as much as they can,” Hand said. “They don’t like to see it just rot.”
Selling fresh vegetables, instead of row crops such as corn, means crops have to be picked by hand.
So, labor is one of their biggest issues, Kirk said.
Kirk said the company makes sure its employees are H2A employees, which is a visa program that brings in seasonal workers from other countries to work the farms.
“We bring them in from Mexico and El Salvador,” she said. “They can come in and we guarantee them a certain pay rate which is well above minimum wage. We provide housing for them, transportation, health care. At our cost, not their cost.”
With the wage they’re paid, the added cost of everything they provide, the cost per person, per hour is approximately $15 per hour, Kirk said.
She said it’s a really big issue because of the need for that labor and the expense of it.
“It’s really expensive and we don’t have a choice,” Kirk said. “We see it as something that we have to do to protect ourselves, first to make sure we have a viable work force.”
She said the farm doesn’t hire anyone without legal status because the risk isn’t worth it.
“We mostly use migrant workers who come here from Mexico,” Corbett said of Ty-Core Farms. “We bring in around 200 to 250 people a year, and the government has some substantial laws regulating what a person has to have for suitable living space.”
Some of the regulations can be very specific, Corbett said. For example, the farm was written up once when a worker left eggs outside of a refrigerator.
“It’s dumb laws like that,” he said.
Most laws and regulations he would like to change come from the federal level. He said farming is impacted by every new president, and President Donald Trump has made things easier than when President Barack Obama was in office.
“With the last eight years, while Obama was in office, it was pretty much all we could do to just keep our head above water,” Corbett said. “It’s changed since Trump has gone into office and started shaking things up a little bit.”
He said Trump is more critical on trade agreements with other countries such as Mexico that have fewer regulations. Corbett said he can’t compete with countries that pay their workers $6 a day when he has to pay his workers $10 an hour. He also has to follow strict regulations about food safety, while other farmers have no one watching over them.
“There’s no one making sure they aren’t using the wrong chemicals or something like that,” Corbett said. “They just send truck after truck in here without any checks and balances.”
Farming in the Lowndes County and Echols County area comes with its benefits, he said. The farm is never short on water, and farmers in the area get along with each other pretty well, he said.
“This is a very good place for what we do,” Corbett said. “In a lot of places around the country they have water restrictions. We don’t have that here. And everyone around here is pretty friendly. When prices get low, it can get a little cutthroat, but the majority of it is friendly.”
As far as the future of farming, Corbett said he looks forward to the rise of new technology in farming. He said he knows there is research going into making machines that can pick fresh vegetables, which Corbett would be interested in.
However, a machine capable of doing what a person can do would take an array of censors and robotics that technology can’t do right now, he said.
Until technology catches up with humans, Corbett asked that people set aside their biases against migrant workers who come to the U.S. just looking to do the work no one else wants. He said he would also like for laws to treat workers more fairly while they are here.
“One of the things that bothers me most is the ignorance of the importance of migrant workers,” Corbett said. “If we want our food picked, it has to be done with their help. The law snatches them up left and right and sends them back home, and they’re just here working and gathering our food for us.”
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Thomas Lynn, Derrek Vaughn, Jason Smith, Kevin Hall, Patti Dozier, Will Woolever, Eve Copeland and Jessie Box.