Third grader Brayden Keller dreams of becoming a farmer.
His eyes light up as he watches a pump quickly extract liters of milk from a fully grown Jersey cow.
“Since I was born, since I knew cows were alive, I wanted to be a farmer,” Keller said while attending Hall County Extension Services’ Ag Day on Sept. 24.
More than 700 Centennial Arts Academy students rotated between stations learning about topics like farming equipment, cattle, poultry and forestry.
Farming is the largest industry in Georgia, but Keller may be an anomaly — interest in farming seems to be waning.
The next generation just doesn’t want to work with cows, said Nathan Eason, White County Extension coordinator for administration agriculture and natural resources.
He said people call his office periodically asking, “I’m inheriting my grandfather’s land. How can I make money on it?”
Eason tells them if they want to care for the farm long-term, they need to get into cattle farming.
The average cattle farm in Georgia has 50 cows per farm and won’t “make you rich, but it’s somewhat sustainable.”
“They say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that,’” Eason said.
A changing industry
The number of individual farms has been shrinking, while large farms are expanding, Eason said.
“There’s always somebody else willing to go bigger and do more,” he said.
In 2002 the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a total of 49,311 farms in Georgia, which had dropped to 42,439 by 2017.
The USDA recorded 218 acres as the average Georgia farm size in 2002. This number increased to 235 acres by 2017.
“This has been happening since the ’50s,” Eason said. “One farm used to feed 10 families, now the average farm feeds 300-400 families.”
Eason said multiple factors come into play: farm competition, unexpected weather patterns, the younger generation’s lack of farming interest and tighter production regulations in light of food safety concerns.
While there are small loans available to beginning farmers, he said it’s challenging to compete with larger, more-established farms.
“At the end of the day there’s a lot more paperwork and red tape,” he said. “It’s almost near impossible for anybody to come into farming not having any family land and trying to make a decent living.”
The University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development reported in its 2019 snapshot that food and fiber production and related industries in 2017 contributed $73.7 billion to Georgia’s economy.
There are more than 392,400 jobs in the food and fiber production and related industries — 19,276 of which were in Hall County. Statewide, most of those jobs, 53,427 of them, were in landscape and horticultural services, followed by crop farming with 33,601 and poultry processing with 33,130.
Georgia continues to lead the nation in broiler production and today the $4.4 billion industry keeps its spot as the state’s No. 1 commodity.
Number of farms in Georgia
2012: 42, 257
Average size of farms in Georgia:
2017: 235 acres
2012: 228 acres
2007: 212 acres
2002: 218 acres
1997: 228 acres
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture’s historical highlights
Educating the next generation
Hall County’s Ag Day program sparked from a need to inspire future farmers.
Coordinators of the event, Tabitha and Steve Brinson, noticed a lack of agriculture education in local schools. Ag Day has been held in schools across Hall County for the past 12 years.
“There’s a good number of students in Hall County that have no idea where their food comes from and what the clothes on their backs are made from,” Tabitha Brinson said. “As agriculture groups or entities, we thought: let’s organize something where we can all come together and teach them something.”
Tabitha Brinson, who is a member of the local Cattlemen’s Association, ran a booth that focused on the byproducts of cows.
A chorus of disgusted sounds came from the students as she explained to them that toothpaste, deodorant and Band-Aids consist of tallow, also known as rendered beef fat.
“I learned a lot,” Destiny Maddox, a third grader, said. “I didn’t know toothpaste came from cows.”
A large Jersey cow stood inside the Georgia Mobile Dairy Classroom during Ag Day, regularly being milked with a pump to show students the milking process.
A couple of shocked reactions rippled through the crowd as the children saw white milk coming out of the brown cow, which some assumed would produce chocolate milk.
Nicole Duvall, who managed the lesson, said she aims to “educate students on where milk comes from and the effort dairy farmers put into taking care of their animals to produce a nutritious product.”
“I hope that kids know that farming is not just overalls and pitchforks,” Josh Presley with White County Farmers Exchange said at the event. “There’s a lot of technology to it, and there’s a lot of jobs that maybe aren’t necessarily on the farm — like working in a lab, purchasing crops.”
What the future may look like
Steve Brinson, who works for the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s emergency management department, said over the past 10 years he has seen an influx of technology-related jobs pop up in the state’s agriculture industry. This includes manufacturing jobs at companies like Kubota and Chandler Equipment Co.
Within the last two decades, Presley with White County Farmers Exchange said drones have played a stronger role in farming. He foresees it becoming an essential tool. Drones can be used to monitor farmland and pinpoint stressed areas that need more attention.
In poultry, Len Chappell, who works at Georgia Poultry Lab, said he sees the lab continuing to advance its methods in testing.
“We understand more about live production process in poultry, and we don’t use antibiotics,” he said. “We’ve raised commercial poultry so much in Georgia that we really have got it as a well-oiled machine.”
In North Georgia, Eason said people are shifting toward niche farming.
“People that have land that are potentially looking for the next investment opportunity, instead of row crops, are looking into agritourism,” he said.
To earn extra income and stay afloat, he said many North Georgia farms are finding ways to attract visitors from the Atlanta area. Some of Georgia’s dominant agritourism includes lavender farms, pick-your-own crops, corn mazes and other activities that bring people to visit farms.
Rest assured, Eason said agriculture is here to stay in Georgia.
“At the end of the day, agriculture in itself is not going away,” Eason said. “Fewer and fewer people are being involved with it, but we got to eat.”