For many holidays and family celebrations, food is a central feature. What would an Independence Day picnic be without watermelon? Can you host a tail-gate or game-day party without chicken wings, hamburgers or barbecue? In my family, dinner get-togethers aren’t complete without an apple, peach, blueberry, or pumpkin pie, depending on the season. And my most-requested cookies wouldn’t be so popular without Georgia grown pecans.
It’s Georgia farmers, in fact, who lead the nation in producing pecans, peanuts, blueberries and broiler chickens, and are the second largest producers of watermelons. They also touch our daily lives through other crops. Georgia cotton is the fiber that makes our comfy jeans, tees, and flannel shirts, as well as smooth-sleeping sheets and fluffy bath towels. Pines, another top commodity for Georgia farmers, supply lumber for the homes in which we host family and friends, as well as pulpwood for paper products, disposable diapers, and many other comforts and conveniences in our lives.
Although farmers represent less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, in Georgia, they fuel the largest segment of our state’s economy. The food, timber, and fiber farmers grow support numerous other industries at both the in-put and the out-put phases of the farm production cycle.
Farmers purchase equipment, seeds or transplants, and supplies from various manufacturers in order to produce the crops that supply mills and processing plants with the raw materials that they convert into finished products. The finished products then go to retail stores that make goods available to us. All of these businesses rely on the transportation industry to move materials between each stage of production and distribution.
As a whole, the Georgia agriculture system provides more than 410,000 jobs and contributes more than $73 billion dollars to the state’s economy each year.
Unfortunately, there’s a less predictable factor in the agricultural production system: weather. This year, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, Georgia farmers are hurting. As the storm swept through south Georgia with history-making force, it killed 2 million chickens, destroyed more than 27,000 acres of pecan trees, devastated bumper cotton crops, caused severe to catastrophic damage to timber stands in a dozen counties and damaged other agriculture businesses for an estimated $3 billion in losses.
Since 97 percent of U.S. farms are family-owned, these losses aren’t just business; they’re personal. The loss of a cotton crop represents the loss of months of work and the income farmers rely on to support their families. The loss of a timber stand represents years of lost labor. And while pecan trees can be replanted, it will take a decade or more before they’re mature enough to produce nuts.
In addition to crop and livestock losses, farmers also sustained damage to fences, barns and storage buildings, irrigation systems and their homes. Many are wondering how, or if, they can rebuild or recover financially. The average age of the principal farm owner in Georgia is nearly 60 years, an age at which many of us anticipate retirement. Over a third of Georgia farmers also work a job off the farm to help make ends meet.
After Hurricane Michael’s force dwindled and roads were cleared and reopened in affected counties, many Georgians donated water and other goods to the disaster relief effort for south Georgia. But the physical and emotional stress of trying to restore a farm that’s been worked by several generations — in addition to financial worries — takes a toll on farm families. As we celebrate the holidays with friends and family, let’s also take time to remember the farmers who produce the bounty we enjoy, and who are themselves in need this season.
You can see some of the damage Hurricane Michael caused to Georgia farms by visiting the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Hurricane Response Center website at http://agr.georgia.gov/gda-hurricane-response.aspx.
Heather N. Kolich is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent for the UGA Extension Forsyth County.