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The Future of Georgia Farming: A Talk with Commissioner Irvin

Posted Oct 21 2008 12:13am

Georgia, Georgia, Georgia. It's the largest state east of Mississippi with a mild climate and diverse topography (from the mountains to the ocean). It is the nation's number one producer of peanuts, pecans, cotton, broiler chickens, eggs and rye. And currently only 1% of its vast farmland is certified organic.

I had to go to Tommy. Commissioner Irvin, that is, the longest serving statewide official in Georgia as well as in the United States. Since 1969, he has served as Georgia’s Agriculture Commissioner. He was elected to his 10th four-year term this past November 2006.

We talked. I asked him about farm-to-school initiatives first. Turns out that although the Department of Agriculture is directly involved in the school lunch program in many states, it is not involved in Georgia--the Department of Education determines what our state's school children are offered for lunch each day. My research shows that 35 states have farm-to-school programs. This has to be achievable, folks. My next call is going to be to Kathy Cox, Georgia's Superintendent of Education.

As for the conversion of farmland from agribusiness to organic or sustainable (which is a muddy term still being defined--I take it to mean beyond organic, but some interpretations have it being a step on the way to organic. The difference, I see, is in how the farm resources are used. Organic farming can be an open loop where organic soil inputs are brought onto the farm. Sustainable is a closed loop where the farm produces its own inputs and puts them back into its own soil in an endless cycle. A sustainable farm requires more diversity and is more likely the picture you have in your mind of a healthy farm).

Whoo--long digression! Sorry! Anyway, Commissioner Irvin says that dedicated acreage to big commodities in Georgia are starting to make the transition to organics. Big problem in sourcing organic feed, which of course is a bigger problem when you are trying to source it for enormous farms rather than small, family farms. Since we have fields and systems in place that support the production of large commodity crops, then I'm guessing the organic versions of these farms are likely to be large monoculture farms as well. My friend Farmer D says that any land that's organic is better than land that is loaded with chemicals, even though diverse, sustainable farms is the ideal (well, add in biodynamic, in Farmer D's case, but that's a whole other story). So, my prediction? In five years or so, you'll be hearing big things about the corporate organic farms in Georgia pumping out organic products. Is that bad?

Well, I asked the farmers--the small, organic sustainable family farmers whose presence at ever-growing farmers markets is exploding nationwide and here in Georgia as well. They want programs and regulations that support the small farm and don't treat them as if they are large processing facilities. The current regulations for producing added-value farm products (such as pickles and dried herbs, for instance) present barriers to sale that are often currently insurmountable financially. Plus, they want support for new and emerging organic farmers as well as certification cost-sharing. What's more, the fact that there is no small processing facility for organic chickens in a state that leads the country in broilers, at a time when organic chicken sales are going through the roof, continues to be a travesty.

Some good news on the Commissioner Irvin front. He recognizes the dramatic changes in our state regarding the need for culturally-appropriate food --for instance, there is now a growing demand for goat meat. He is working to expand market availability for organics. And there are now chicken processing plants that will dedicate shifts to organic processing--however, these processors are too large-scaled for the small family farmer. Commissioner Irvin says that there are many challenges here in Georgia but that we are going to meet those challenges, and that, and I quote, "within the season, we'll have any product you want."

Okay, so here's what I see as the bottom line. The market talks, as we know. Agriculture in the state of Georgia is changing rapidly as a result of consumer demand. If you want sustainable organic products, don't buy chemical-laden agribusiness versions simply because they are local. Commissioner Irvin will give us what we want tomorrow--if we vote with our dollars today. And we, the consumers, have a great deal of power in shaping the future of farming for the state of Georgia, and the nation.
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