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Organic farmers hope to reap benefits from leadership change
Local growers seek policies helpful to industry from new ag commissioner
Sunshine Diaz picks some lettuce at Rock Star Farms in Forsyth County. - photo by Tom Reed

Georgia’s longtime agriculture commissioner, Tommy Irvin, has spent more than 41 years building the state’s agricultural empire on international trade.

But as Irvin retires this year and the state enters a new era of agricultural leadership, the organization that represents the state’s organic and naturally grown producers, Georgia Organics, is looking to rebuild at home.

As hundreds gathered in Athens this weekend for the annual Georgia Organics conference, no one was exactly sure what this year’s election might mean for the industry.

But most acknowledged the possibility of change in a state where agribusiness reigns.

"The election definitely is important to the people that are here," said Suzanne Welander, a former administrative coordinator for Georgia Organics who now takes on issues of pasture-raised poultry producers. "Whether there’s hope for substantial change that benefits small farmers in a meaningful way, the jury’s still out on that. We don’t know yet."

Georgia Organics leaders are "definitely" going to watch the commissioner’s race. Executive Director Alice Rolls said the organization likely will moderate discussions between the final candidates, "although there’s still a lot of question about who those candidates are going to be."

Two Republican candidates, Gary Black of Commerce and Darwin Carter of Alma, have already begun raising campaign money. A third Republican, Toccoa’s John Wilkinson, dropped out of the race for health reasons. No Democrats have yet entered the race.

Whoever winds up on the ballot, Georgia Organics plans to offer as much information about the candidates as it can for its members, Rolls said.

"Our job is to bring forth the key issues that are relevant," she said.

Georgia Organics has become the umbrella organization for nearly all aspects of the state’s sustainable industries. Its relevant issues include linking local farms with schools and making it possible for small farmers to process pasture-raised poultry.

The University of Georgia’s 2010 Ag Forecast declares that prospects for Georgia’s locally and naturally grown industries are strong despite the current financial crisis. But it also reports that the state lacks the adequate infrastructure, specifically small-scale meat processing facilities, to handle the industry’s growth.

"I hope that whoever we do get as our next commissioner will, to some extent, embrace this segment of farm production, this segment being the sustainable, artesian, local, humane: what we call the ‘good food movement,’" said Will Harris, the president of Georgia Organics’ board of directors. "I do think it’s very important. I hope that whoever we get recognizes the importance of this segment."

Though Carter and Black both promise to empower local producers, some of the participants in this weekend’s Georgia Organics conference, holding onto its bumper sticker’s "Vote with Your Fork" approach, admit they aren’t interested in the election. But many are looking for change on the political scene, their issues as varied as the products they produce.

Sunshine Diaz, owner of Rock Star Farms in Gainesville, has hope that the Georgia’s attitude toward small and organic producers will change. Diaz and her husband, who have been involved with Georgia Organics for the last three years, started their own naturally-grown produce farm near Browns Bridge Road last summer.

"I think the more we have local farms, the more we empower our communities, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that once it gets started. And it is started," Diaz said.

But Nashville-based goat farmer Tom Kuettner said he won’t be looking for any help from the state’s new ag commissioner.

"I haven’t seen anything I like in the ag department," Kuettner said.

Still, he is looking for legislation that affects smaller farmers and those who cater to the emerging demand for local food.

Kuettner, vice president of the Georgia Dairy Goat Breeders Association and the owner of Kickin’ K Ranch in South Georgia, is closely watching two bills that might allow farmers to sell raw milk for human consumption.

From his booth at the conference expo Friday, Kuettner passed out fliers in support of Georgia House Bill 874, written by Cobb County Republican Bobby Franklin, over another bill written by Athens representative Doug McKillip that seeks to legalize but regulate the sale of raw milk.

Franklin’s bill makes it legal to sell and deliver raw milk for human consumption without regulation. Kuettner said McKillip’s bill makes it too expensive for small farmers to sell raw milk, which now can only be sold for pets’ use.

Georgia Dairy Goat Breeders Association President Kay James said the current prohibition on the sale of raw milk for human consumption limits people’s right to choose. She hopes change is on the horizon.

"I think that most people think there will be some type of change," James said. "And we’re all hoping, with these bills that have been proposed, that we will see some changes for the small farmer in Georgia."

Jonathan Hosseini of the Roswell-based Kenari Company, who passed out samples of his locally grown and handcrafted beverage Friday, said he wants government to get out of the way. He is following state legislation that would pre-empt local ordinances banning residents from raising small animals or crops for consumption. That bill, also sponsored by Franklin, is still in committee.

Hosseini thinks the bill should go further to allow in-city residents to trade their livestock or produce for other commodities.

"It’s very silly that you can have a pit bull in town and you can’t have a goat," he said.

Others, like Suzanne Welander, are hoping that this year’s election brings policies that are more friendly to smaller poultry producers caught between federal and state policies.

Georgia’s food code requires meat to be inspected during the slaughter process, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture won’t send an inspector unless there are 20,000 or more birds being processed. That forces the state’s small poultry producers to drive long hours to other states for processing, Welander said.

The state agriculture department is close to releasing rules for on-farm slaughter of 1,000 or fewer birds, yet it still leaves farmers who want to slaughter between 1,000 and 20,000 chickens at a time in a lurch, Welander said.

"We’re the No. 1 poultry producing state, and we don’t have any small-scale processing facilities for farmers," Rolls said.

And while she credits Irvin for his 41-year commitment to agriculture, Rolls said she is looking forward to new leadership ready to tackle issues important to small producers.

"Any time you’ve got somebody there that’s been there a long time, you’re not necessarily going to be on the cutting edge of innovation," Rolls said. "... When you bring new leadership in, you have an opportunity to really ramp up the dialogue on new and emerging issues."

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