Growing Parity In Agribusiness
Until recently, Courtney Waller never thought of herself as a part of Georgia’s largest agriculture demographic. "I used to be a massage therapist and now I’m a farmer," she says with a laugh. Waller owns a 76-acre farm in the Atlanta suburbs near Covington where she drives a tractor, mends fences and looks after the eight horses that form the central part of her life. She has been a farm owner for only five years and is definitely not in it for the money.
"I would like to make a living with them, but you have to understand that horses and making a living are not exactly synonymous," she says.
Waller is part of Georgia’s "pleasure agriculture," made up of farmers who love life on the farm but have no illusions about using the land to support themselves. Instead, they rely on other sources of income. In 2004, farms of 50 to 179 acres in size came to represent 35 percent of all agricultural land in the state, with 74 percent of all farms having less than 180 acres, according to data collected by the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.
Last year, horses represented a $404 million business in the state, including the value of the animals and attendant services such as boarding, breeding and training. In dollars and cents, horses are running almost neck and neck with peanuts ($423 million), long a leading Georgia agricultural commodity.
Almost 200 miles south of Courtney Waller’s little farm sits 1,200 acres of Colquitt County land owned and operated by a family now in its third generation of using their soil for the serious purpose of making a living. The Perrymans, father W.F. Perryman, Jr. and son Craig Perryman, grow peanuts and cotton on their farm’s 550 acres of cultivatable land.
The Perrymans are part of the state’s smallest agriculture demographic group, the 4.3 percent who are principal operators of a farm consisting of a thousand acres or more. Craig Perryman, 46, is the hands-on, day-to-day farm manager, while his father handles finances, government paperwork and investments.
The Perrymans’ intergenerational partnership is also part of a fading farming culture phenomenon: the father-to-son transfer of the land and the love of working it. "I grew up on this farm," Craig says. "I built a house on the old homestead next to my grandfather’s."
Twenty-four years ago, the younger Perryman grabbed a degree in finance from the University of Georgia and seemed headed for the business world. Like so many farmers’ sons of his generation, he set off to the city to make his mark. But dreams of the peaceful life on the farm quickly brought him back to his roots.
"It’s hard to put into words the way I feel about farming," Perryman says. "[Farming] feels like freedom even though I’m tied down all the time. I enjoy the crops, the planting and the harvesting."
The Perrymans’ two crops, cotton and peanuts, are Georgia agricultural staples accounting for $1.5 billion in the 2005 value of crops to farmers at the time of harvest, according to UGA data.
Courtney Waller, the small farmer, and the Perrymans, the large farmers, are examples of the contrasts in farming found in the two halves of the state that, when combined, produce a potent economic mix.
The growing agricultural parity between the two Georgias, the rolling mini-farms of the urban north and the huge row-crop fields of the south, would seem to dictate an equal division of resources in the care and feeding of those who tend the herds and till the soil. Not exactly.
"When you add the aggregate of what agriculture is, which is very broad — it’s not just what leaves the farm — it is by far the largest industry in the state, maybe as much as $18 billion annually," says Scott Angle, who took office in August, 2005 as UGA’s dean and director of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"This college has done a good job of supporting the large traditional farm and we will always do that. At the same time, we do need to serve the small farmers, the niche farmers with the specialty crops. I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job on that. But I want to make this crystal clear: We will never be pulling resources away from our traditional farming support for some of these new markets. That will have to come from finding new resources at the state and federal level, and certainly that is one of my jobs to help find money to support some of these new markets."
Georgia farmers have long been accustomed to having the federal government as a partner in the production of food and fiber. Peanuts, for instance, have enjoyed federal price protection since the 1930s, a so-called "safety net" that insured farmers against total disaster during times when crop prices were low. But the past 20 years have seen a gradual shift toward freer and more open markets and less dependence on support prices, a move that recently resulted in peanut and tobacco farmers receiving cash payouts for formerly subsidized crops.
For farmers like Craig Perryman, keeping an eye on Washington is as natural a vigil as scanning the skies for rain clouds. "Tobacco was what drove the farm economy here," says Craig, who until last year also grew that crop on the family farm. "Now both tobacco and peanuts are basically gone."
Congress has begun work on the 2007 farm bill, which is set to go into effect in September of that year. There’s some effort to extend the present farm bill for another year as legislators look at changes in the role the federal government plays in agriculture.
Perryman says if more cuts are made in government assistance programs affecting cotton, he would be at a crossroads. "I would have to get a whole lot bigger or look to supplement my income somehow."
In fact, about 40 percent of Georgia’s farmers spent 200 hours or more working off the farm last year, either as fulltime job-holders and weekend farmers, or because they need the money to help support life on the farm. Growers and ranchers who work at second jobs have been singled out as symptoms of the continuing decline in family farms.
"The perception is that farm numbers have been steadily declining, but that is really inaccurate," says John McKissick, director of the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. "They did decline steadily in the ’60s to the mid-’70s, but there has been more of a leveling off since that time." Where once there were 83,000 farms in the state, today there are about 50,000; but that number has remained constant since the mid-’90s.
AGENT AND ADVISOR
There are 588 farmers in Perryman’s Colquitt County and it’s a sure bet almost all of them know Scott Brown.
As a county agent, a revered figure in rural lore, Brown serves as the farmer’s counselor, advisor and teacher — an expert on all things agricultural. Colquitt County’s five agents spend most of their time showing farmers how to improve crop production and quality. "Colquitt County has the most diverse agricultural base in the Southeast United States," Brown says. "We grow everything from arugula to zucchini."
It is early June and Brown is putting in dawn-to-dusk workdays as farmers hit high gear in the growing season. A typical day this time of year finds Brown in his truck driving from farm to farm for one-on-one meetings with farmers to introduce new techniques or identify and offer advice on ridding a crop of any one of the myriad diseases or bugs that can invade a field.
"I see myself as an educator," Brown says, "I try to put the technical terms in more user-friendly terms." Brown’s teachings can include "tailgate seminars," sessions involving just a handful of farmers and usually conducted in a field.
Since 1914, Georgia farmers have relied on county agents to help them keep abreast of advances in agriculture technology. "Being a county agent is both a vocation and an avocation," says Brown, who admits to being close to his farmers. "While I don’t share in their economic pain, I do feel it in a very real way. It is an emotional strain on me when times are not good for them."
Brown’s closeness with his rural constituency is a source of envy for urbanized county agent Billy Skaggs of Gainesville. "When you have a county like Hall with 175,000 people it’s just hard to build relationships like the county agents did 30 years ago," he says.
Yet Skaggs is still able to reach the people he serves through a weekly radio call-in show and via a network of 140 trained volunteers called Master Gardeners who conduct seminars in downtown libraries and schools.
Skaggs spends his workday talking to landscapers, lawn maintenance workers and garden center managers, all part of the new class of farmers as defined by the USDA Census of Agriculture. Hall was the state leader in poultry production until recently when the cost of land became too high for chicken houses. Hall County farmers still raise $290 million worth of chickens yearly, but such traditional farming is gradually being replaced.
"The work we do is more and more urban — the homeowner, the general public," Skaggs says. "We have poultry, beef cattle, dairy cows, apples, peaches and a wide array of vegetables. A growing group here in agriculture is the people who own horses, and we work with them growing better forage, better grass for the animals."
But even such basic agriculture is threatened by subdivisions and shopping centers advancing from Atlanta. "You’re looking at pastureland that can go for as much as $30,000 to $40,000 an acre and you just can’t afford to put any type of farming operation on land that costs that much," Skaggs says.
SQUEEZING THE MIDDLE
In Georgia, big farms in the southern part of the state are getting bigger, while small farms are popping up around Atlanta like mushrooms after a rain. And, says UGA’s Angle, the north-south agriculture phenomena is putting the squeeze on the middle.
"The people who are driving up the land values in North Georgia often want to be part-time farmers, people who have cows in the front yard or who grow wine grapes," he says. "Small farmers and part-time farmers are changing the community of agriculture in the state, but it is still agriculture. That type of agriculture needs the College of Agriculture more so than others do, in my opinion. These are people who have never been farmers before, don’t have that history and don’t have that knowledge base.
"We’re going to become a state where we have these 4,000- or 5,000-acre farms in South Georgia that can do well. Then we’re going to have a number of very small farms, maybe the 40-acre farm, with either part-time farmers, where the husband and wife work off the farm, or they have some type of very high value cash crop. Where I see a concern is the middle farm, the couple-of-hundred-acres farm. It is too large for those high value crops and too small for corn, cotton or peanuts. These farms are disappearing."