Georgia’s top Ag official visits farms

Published 2:38 pm Friday, June 15, 2012

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black visited our area Thursday as part of a delegation of state leaders who toured farms in Decatur and Seminole counties.

The delegation included Department of Agriculture officials and several members of the Georgia General Assembly from around the state, who were led on tours of local farm operations by Development Authority Executive Director Rick McCaskill.

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Black, who was elected agriculture commissioner in 2010, said he organizes semi-annual trips to South Georgia farms as part of an effort to give Atlanta-based officials a glimpse of how they operate.

“Sometimes, people assume that [General Assembly] members from the Atlanta area take an opposing view of agriculture in South Georgia,” Commissioner Black said. “The facts are, they just don’t know the details of what goes on down here, so this tour is my commitment to build ambassadors for agriculture around the state.”

On Thursday morning, the delegation stopped at Gerald W. “Jerry” Long’s “U-Pick” vegetable farm, which is located on about 100 acres between Old Whigham Road and U.S. 84 East. Long, who also leases other land, has been growing produce for 29 years and has been allowing customers to come pick their own vegetables almost as long. From May to July, potatoes, snap beans and squash are in high demand, while sweet potatoes, peanuts and peas are the main crops in September and October.

Long grows 45 different vegetables in all, in addition to raising cattle. He employs five adults full-time and hires five teenage workers to help out during the summer. With the help of his sons, Jared and Justin, and his wife Janice, Long hopes to expand his business along U.S. 84 with the addition of fruit orchards, a commercial kitchen to be used for cooking vegetables for customers and a butcher shop which will offer premium beef, chicken and sausage.

“The idea of this tour was to show off the variety of farming operations we have here in Southwest Georgia,” said Long, who is currently vice-president of Georgia Farm Bureau. “I just wanted them to see a different type of business that has more direct interaction with consumers.”

Other stops on the tour included Greg Calhoun’s sweet corn cooler off Dothan Road, the Walther Potato Farm in Brinson, the Georgia State Docks on Spring Creek Road, R.W. Griffin Bainbridge Terminal Services, Dollar Farm Products, a tour of the American Peanut Growers Group facility in Donalsonville and Murray Farms in Faceville.

In addition to Black, the delegation included Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Judson Turner, Department of Agriculture Policy Director Sydne Smith, Rep. Glenn Baker (D-Jonesboro), a member of the Georgia House of Representative’s committee for Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, Rep. Bruce Williamson (R-Monroe), Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville), Rep.Valerie Clark (R-Lawrenceville), State Senator John Bulloch (R-Ochlocknee) and Rep. Gene Maddox (R-Cairo).


Black comments on Farm Bill

In a brief interview after touring Long’s farm, Commissioner Black gave his opinion on the 2012 Farm Bill currently being considered by the U.S. Congress. Both the House and Senate have their own versions of the Farm Bill, which is re-authorized every four years and pertains to everything from food stamps and nutrition, crop insurance, land conservation and commodity programs.

Both versions of the 2012 Farm Bill have been criticized by Southern farmers and government leaders, for various reasons. One of them is farmers’ concern that due to federal government budget woes, massive cuts may be made to commodity programs, which consist of direct payments made to certain farmers for growing certain crops.

According to the House Committee on Agriculture, commodity programs are “a safety net for farmers that grow commodity crops, including wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, rice, peanuts, sugar and dairy. These programs help farmers manage the risks inherent to farming, including volatile weather, natural disasters, and fluctuating prices.”

Traditionally, direct payments have been made based on a set amount per acre they own, regardless of how many acres they actually plant crops on in a given year. However, the Senate’s 2012 Farm Bill would reduce direct payments by $20 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Under the proposed Agriculture Risk Program, direct payments would be limited to planted acreage, with amounts being tied to financial protection plans chosen by farmers. The Senate’s bill would also begin covering the deductibles farmers have to pay before crop insurance kicks in. Disaster assistance and subsidized loans for farmers would also remain.

At issue, at least among Southern farmers, is how the Farm Bill would calculate how the direct payment funding pool would be split up among crops. According to Commissioner Black and local agribusinessman Tommy Dollar, the proposed Farm Bill heavily favors corn and soybeans, which are grown the most in the Midwest states, over cotton and peanuts, which are grown the most in the Southeast.

On a recent visit to Bainbridge, U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) said peanuts and cotton are “not being treated right” in the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill and said he preferred the version under consideration in the U.S. House.

“This is the most regionally-biased Farm Bill I have ever seen,” Commissioner Black said. “Senator [Saxby] Chambliss and Senator Isakson have been right on in the comments they are making. It seems to me that the best choice we have is a continuation of the existing Farm Bill—Congress needs to hit the reset button and start over.”

The Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission predicts a final version of the Farm Bill won’t be approved until 2013. That’s partly because Senate debate on the Farm Bill is wrapping up this week as federal lawmakers return home to campaign in advance of November’s Presidential election.