By Timothy Coolong
Southern Georgia is a powerhouse for wholesale fresh-market vegetable production. The vegetable industry in Georgia was valued at over $1 billion in 2015, with more than 170,000 acres in production, according to the University of Georgia’s 2015 Georgia Farm Gate Value Report.
SIZE AND SCOPE
The vegetable industry in southern Georgia is also extremely diversified, with more than two dozen crops grown on a commercial scale. Most large growers produce vegetables nearly 12 months a year. However, when compared to some states with vegetable industries just a fraction of the size of that in Georgia, certified organic vegetable production in southwest Georgia is substantially smaller than conventional acreage.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2016 Certified Organic Survey, there were 83 certified organic farms in Georgia with 36 of them growing vegetables on approximately 374 acres in 2016. These numbers may underestimate current certified organic vegetable production as Georgia Organics (https://georgiaorganics.org), a non-profit group in Georgia that works to support organic farming, reports 132 organic farms in Georgia as of June 2018. There are also fairly significant numbers of growers who use organic practices, but have chosen not to become organic certified. Nonetheless, certified organic acreage for vegetable production is surprisingly low for such a significant vegetable-production region.
Currently, there are a few large-scale operations that farm organically in both northern Florida and southern Georgia. As these farms grow, they will quickly change the size and value of wholesale organic production in Georgia. However, outside of these operations, why haven’t more commercial growers put some of their land into certified production, particularly given the growing demand from buyers? The reasons are complex.
One of the biggest challenges faced by growers is that vegetable production occurs year-round in southern Georgia. Many pests, such as sweetpotato whitefly, can overwinter on greens crops, which then overlap production with warm-season spring crops. Sweetpotato whiteflies can spread a range of viruses to cucurbit, bean and tomato crops. Other pests such as diamondback moth, a pest of brassicas, can survive through the summer on collards, leading to continual populations of these pests. Without fallow periods of production, insect and disease pressure can easily build to the point where management seems impossible.
Some weeds, such as yellow and purple nutsedge, are problematic. These weeds can easily grow right through plastic mulch.
Other challenges are market-based. Because of pest pressures, the practical window for production of many organic vegetables in southern Georgia is fairly narrow. It typically occurs early in the spring season for warm-season crops and in early fall or spring for cool-season crops. This represents a challenge, as large-scale buyers may not want to leave existing suppliers in the western United States unless a fairly wide harvest window can be provided.
Another obstacle is a lack of land that can be pulled out of rotation with conventional produce for the three-year window required for transitioning to organic production. This obstacle certainly isn’t unique to southern Georgia, though.
These challenges are real and have deterred many growers in the past. However, over the previous two to three years, there has been enough of a demand for organic produce that some growers in southern Georgia have started the process to become certified. While some have been able to fast-track the process by procuring land that has been out of conventional production for a number of years, others have begun to transition portions of their land to organic.
Large companies that previously may have been focused on conventional pesticides have also begun to test more products approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute on farms in the region, looking to aid in controlling some of the key pests. Therefore, while southern Georgia may be currently lagging behind many other regions in organic production, there is enough discussion and interest among growers and buyers that I expect acreage to increase significantly here in the next three to five years.
Timothy Coolong is an associate professor and Extension vegetable specialist in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia in Tifton.
This article was featured in the August issue of VSCNews magazine. If you would like to receive future issues of VSCNews magazine, click here.
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