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Ag forecast delivers rosy preview for food growers
Georgia's agriculture industry predicted to stay stable
A batch of fried apple pies cools on the rack at the Jaemor Farms bakery Monday afternoon. The bakery allows the popular Northeast Georgia farm and market to sell authentic homemade goods and add more employees. The 2011 Georgia Ag Forecast predicts the agriculture industry should remain stable this year.

Georgia’s agriculture industry should remain stable this year, especially as the “buying local” trend continues, agriculture experts said Monday morning during the 2011 Georgia Ag Forecast.

“Local foods may be the best path toward economic recovery. We spend $1 trillion buying food in this country, which is more than it took to bail out the banks,” said Ken Meter, president of Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis. “It’s the No. 2 expense after housing, so we’re forced to be inclusive in the economy.”

Meter, who has studied 58 regions in 25 states in the last decade, presented several innovative ideas for growing and selling food locally through collaborative groups, farmers markets and new farming practices.

“What I’m trying to determine is what happens to communities where people raise food and eat food. Are our communities getting stronger or not?” he said. “What should local food systems accomplish? I think local selling and buying should bring health, wealth and connections.”

The trend links to relationship-building, noted Tim Young, owner of Nature’s Harmony Farm in Elberton.

“People want to hear what farmers have to say. They’re also asking themselves where their foods come from and are trying to reconnect with the origins of their food,” he said. “But why go through all this effort over supermarkets? When people point to trust, taste, health and the local connection, I find the biggest reason is trust. People want to trust where their food comes from.”

The Echols family of Jaemor Farms in Alto see this to be especially true for Hall County.

“The buy local movement has been very big the last couple of years,” said Judah Echols. “I see that getting stronger and stronger, whether it’s a family-run farm like ours or the Hall County Farmers Market.”

Consumers continue to seek fresh food sources in all variations of the product.

“For example, peaches are our biggest crop, and we put them in ice cream, preserves and cider,” he said. “We push that value-added aspect of our operations, which helps to move more of our product to the public in different ways.”

After a successful run in 2010, this year’s statewide agribusiness outlook depends on increasing input prices, steady demand for crops and new legislative policies, said John McKissick, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“Everything was up significantly in 2010, so the real question is whether or not we can continue the momentum we ended 2010 with,” he said. “As I look at the outlook, probably more — if not as many — new uncertainties come not from supply and demand but from policy, rule makers and lawmakers. That brings a number of issues to the table.”

This year’s legislation includes rulings on the tri-state water wars, immigration reform, greenhouse gas emissions, food safety, and imports and exports. On the supply and demand side, farmers are looking at a flat economic recovery, increasing livestock feed prices and still high unemployment numbers.

“It looks generally favorable; however, we have to look behind the scenes and ask what this really means for us at the bottom line and areas we don’t traditionally think about outside of supply and demand,” McKissick said.

For the meats, ornamental plants and green industries, producers must look at how much consumers are willing to spend as prices keep increasing.

“Disposable income will remain relatively flat, but at least it has stabilized,” he said. “Consumers spend based on how they feel about the future, and right now there’s nothing really to get excited about except at least we’ve stabilized and hopefully will remain at these levels.”

As budgets shrink, however, county extension offices that help farmers have to do more with less. The statewide office reorganized extensions this year, with some counties sharing an agent.

“This is where the rubber really does hit the road,” said Beverly Sparks, associate dean for extension. “This gives flexibility as resources return to fill in counties and add back agents, so we appreciate you contacting local legislators to support additional agents as things get better.”

The 2011 economic forecast was the fifth annual Ag Forecast series held by the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Gainesville was the first stop of the five-city tour, which includes Tifton and Statesboro this week and Carrollton and Macon in February.

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