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Annual forecast delivers mixed outlook to meat producers
John McKissick, director of the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, speaks Tuesday at the Georgia Ag Forecast in Gainesville.

Production of broiler hens took the biggest hit in 2009 than it has taken since the 1970s, said the director for the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

But John McKissick, a nationally recognized economist, offered a glimmer of hope to local farmers at the annual Georgia Ag Forecast in Gainesville Tuesday. McKissick’s speech had two titles; one that was hopeful and another that, well, wasn’t.

McKissick, who said he preferred the optimistic title, “Happy Start to New Decade,” offered local farmers hope that agricultural production and prices for agricultural products will stabilize — and may even grow a little — in 2010.

But farmers and agricultural companies won’t see sustained growth until the area’s jobless rate declines and food consumption grows, McKissick said.

“Employment — that is the bad part of the picture,” McKissick said.

Specifically, McKissick addressed broiler production, which saw cuts in 2009 that helped stabilize prices. Now poultry companies may be ready to increase production — at least a little. Prices for broiler hens and beef cattle may also be slightly higher in 2010, McKissick said.

The forecast was encouraging for Belmont cattle farmer Larry Nix, who over the past two years has cut his herd by more than 30 percent — anything that “had bad udders or bad legs or bad feet, they went”— as prices for cattle dropped.

“Beef cattle prices were kindly weak and there was a sell-off in ’08 and it pushed prices down,” Nix said. “(But) it’s beginning to come back, so 2010 and 2011 looks encouraging,” Nix said.

Mike Haynes, who raises Holstein heifers and breeder hens on his 200-acre Clarks Bridge Road farm, said McKissick’s forecast gave him hope, too, that local farmers’ luck may improve.

“I think things are going to get better; I don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Haynes said. “Farming is something that you kind of gamble at. You never know what’s going to take place in the future. It’s just hard to say.”

In 2009, the price Haynes got for the Holstein heifers he sold to dairy farmers dropped from about $2,000 per head to $1,100, he said. And while Haynes said he hasn’t been hit as hard as other producers of broiler hens and eggs, Haynes waited longer for a new flock of birds in 2009 than he ever has had to wait — five weeks — as poultry companies slowed production.

The slowed poultry production, and the lapses between flocks, had an impact on Haynes’ bottom line in 2009.

“You’re not getting any money; you’re sitting there idle,” Haynes said. “You’ve still got payments to make, so you’ve got to stretch it out the best way you can... (because) you’ve still got your bills you’ve got to pay just to keep the farm going.”

But Haynes, who said he knew an egg producer that waited about two months to get new birds, said he was “fortunate” to get the birds when he did.

Tuesday’s forecast, and the others that will occur across the state this week, was meant to give farmers and agricultural leaders knowledge to plan for the rest of the year, said J. Scott Angle, dean and director of the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

“These are uncertain times in agriculture,” Angle said.

The forecast also brought news for vegetable and fruit producers as well as producers of “ornamental” landscape materials.

As California, one of the country’s leading producers of fruits and vegetables, struggles with the lack of water resources, Angle said Georgia could become one of the leading responders to the growing demand for food in the world.

 “Georgia is in the catbird seat for agricultural production in the future,” Angle said.