More than 1,400 Georgia farmers and agribusiness leaders from across the state met on Jekyll Island earlier this month for the organization’s annual convention.

The three-day convention included a trade show and commodity conferences where farmers heard updates on policy and production issues impacting Georgia’s major commodities.

During the general session on Dec. 4 convention attendees had the pleasure of hearing Gov. Nathan Deal, Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black and Georgia Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens.

“One of the great things Georgia has going for us is what you do every day,” Gov. Deal said. “Your industry is the largest segment of our state economy, and we thank you for the fact you are so efficient and that you continue to make progress in the right direction. I know you’ve had difficulties, but we’re trying to do our part at the state level to make sure you can continue to remain competitive.”

Deal acknowledged the importance of international trade to agriculture and said the state is working to deepen the Savannah harbor in preparation for two years when the Panama Canal will allow passage of larger ships.

“If we are not prepared to accommodate the larger vessels that will come through the Panama Canal beginning in 2014 we will lose out on much of the commerce that is going to be taking place in trade around the world,” Deal said.  “We are expecting to be prepared with our share of the project funding cost, and we’re continuing to work through the hurdles of securing the federal funds.”

Deal spoke of the drought conditions that returned to Georgia this year, and reiterated his commitment to dedicate $300 million over the four-year period of his term to build regional reservoirs to lessen the state’s dependence on federally controlled reservoirs.

“Water is an issue that will continue to be a concern for all of us. We’re in this boat together. In my opinion the state of Georgia has been too dependent on federally controlled reservoirs for its water supply. We need to have more reservoirs and other water sources that are controlled by local jurisdictions,” Deal said.

Deal told the farmers he recognizes agriculture is a labor-intensive business and that all of agriculture’s labor needs cannot be solved using machinery.

“Your need for a legal, available work force is the concern that has been shared with me, and I will certainly keep that in mind,” Deal said.

He said immigration legislation the General Assembly passed this year mandated a study, which should provide data to help address the labor issues agriculture faces. The Georgia Department of Agriculture is in the process of compiling the report and will submit it to Gov. Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston by Jan. 1.

Labor reform needed

“We want to know what reform is needed and what can be done at the state level. I think it is important the state of Georgia leads the way in providing statistical data so that good decisions can be made based on that data,” Deal said. “Unless you know the problem you’re trying to solve, it is very difficult to get people to solve it. This report will be the first step in providing information to Congress to get them to reform the guest worker program so that it is fair and affordable for farmers.”

In closing, Deal voiced his commitment to being fiscally responsible and rebuilding the state’s financial reserves.

“I have asked all state agencies to submit their budgets based on two percent below what was appropriated for their use this past year,” Deal said.

“Even if our revenues continue to climb as they have this past year, my goal is to make sure we restore the rainy day fund. We cannot continue to be a state that exhausts all of our reserves. We need to build a sufficient reserve so that when truly unexpected times come we will have the ability to fall back on that rainy day fund.”

While delivering his annual address to Georgia Farm Bureau members, GFB President Zippy Duvall described the organization as a family whose members find common ground and pull together to support a position that is best for agriculture overall.

“Our grassroots members came together this fall during our policy development process to decide what policy positions will best serve all farmers and rural communities across the state,” Duvall said. “During our convention we will adopt the policy developed by our members, putting us all on common ground and giving us a playbook from which we will work in the year to come.”

Duvall voiced agriculture’s need for farm workers saying, “Skilled farm labor is a necessity, just like land, water and equipment. Without timely access to a stable work force, large segments of agriculture will grind to a halt. Farmers must have a stable work force, and we must have meaningful immigration reform. “

Duvall noted that Farm Bureau recognizes the problems associated with illegal immigration as many Farm Bureau members serve on school boards, hospital authorities and as county commissioners.

“We must get a handle on this problem, but we must be cautious. In our zeal to correct one problem we don’t need to create new ones,” Duvall said.

“We don’t need to stall the largest economic engine in this state, and we don’t need to scare off our workforce. We need a workable guest worker program for agriculture so that farmers can get the skilled workers they need to produce the crops and livestock needed by our country and around the world.”

Duvall commended Rep. Jack Kingston (R-1st Dist.) and Sen. Saxby Chambliss for introducing legislation this year that would streamline the federal guest worker program to better meet agriculture’s labor needs. Duvall also thanked Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R- Dist.3) for co-sponsoring Kingston’s bill and encouraged other members of Georgia’s Congressional delegation to support the legislation.

Environmental issues

Duvall also noted that Farm Bureau has worked at the state and national levels to represent farmers on environmental issues, speaking out against overreaching and burdensome U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations regarding dust, water and endangered species.

“An appointed government bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., will never know the importance of a clean environment like the farmer does, because we’re the ones that actually live on the land; we have more to lose than anyone else,” Duvall said.  “Farmers have no intention to poison their own families. Farmers simply want to make a living without excessive government intervention into our livelihoods.”

Duvall discussed the upcoming farm bill, saying Farm Bureau would support a mirror image of the 2008 farm bill if it were possible, because it has succeeded in providing Americans with a safe and abundant food supply, while helping farmers, but recognized the current budget crisis would likely require a much different farm bill.

“Things have changed since the 2008 farm bill was negotiated,” Duvall said. “Congress is taking a more serious look at the federal budget, and that is a difficult process. Nothing points that out more than the recent failure of the Super Committee to come to a budget agreement. That lack of consensus will make agreement on the 2012 farm bill difficult as well, but Farm Bureau will continue to be there to make your voice heard during the farm bill deliberations.”

Duvall also described the efforts Farm Bureau has made to fight metal theft, as increasing numbers of farmers in recent years have had copper wiring stripped from irrigation pivots and farm buildings by thieves.

“This year we worked with a coalition of public utilities, law enforcement, general contractors, recyclers and others to raise awareness of this growing problem. We printed copies of a Metals Compliance and Prosecution Guide to educate victims and law enforcement about how to bring a case against metal thieves. We also hosted meetings with law enforcement and recyclers as we seek more effective ways to reduce the crime of metal theft.”

Duvall commended Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black for his visionary approach to restructuring the Georgia Agriculture Department.

“Gary and I have a strong relationship and our beliefs are united in doing whatever we can to help farmers in this great state. Many of you witnessed an example of the partnership as you visited the new Georgia Agriculture Building at Sunbelt Expo.”

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black also addressed the convention attendees during the general session of the Dec. 5 proceedings. Black, who served as president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council for 21 years before being elected commissioner of agriculture last year, delivered a speech titled "30 years, 30 weeks, 30 days and 30 minutes."

Black, who coordinated the Georgia Farm Bureau Young Farmer program before moving on to the Agribusiness Council, recognized former members of the GFB Young Farmer Committee who now hold leadership roles in the organization or state government.

Urged young farmers to get involved

He encouraged young farmers to get involved in the organization and prepare to assume leadership roles in the future. Black also reflected on changes Georgia agriculture has witnessed in the last 30 years such as decreases in pork, soybean and tobacco production while production of cotton, fruits and vegetables have increased.

“We’ve had lots of challenges and lots of changes in the last thirty years, and I tip my hat to you and thank you for being involved in agriculture during these past thirty years,” Black said.

Black also gave a stewardship report of the changes he has implemented at the department of agriculture in the last 30 weeks, such as recruiting paid subscriptions to the Market Bulletin to cover production costs and announced the department will soon introduce a smart phone application for the biweekly publication.

Black described steps the department is taking to market Georgia grown products such as developing a new Georgia Grown logo, using Georgia chefs to promote Georgia commodities and working with school systems to feed students with locally grown food.

“The issue of locally produced food is not a fad. It’s here to stay in the marketplace,” Black said.

“If locally grown food fits in with your operation and business plan, we have a new logo you’re going to want to use. We have developed an integrated marketing program that will keep Georgia grown products in the minds of consumers not only here in Georgia, but nationally and internationally, too.”

Black also encouraged convention delegates to work with the Georgia General Assembly when it reconvenes in 30 days.

 “Farm Bureau is the recognized legislative voice of Georgia farmers. When your board of directors come to Atlanta people listen,” Black said.

He encouraged all Farm Bureau members to get involved in the legislative process and address issues such as taxes, the environment and metal theft while guarding against apathy. 

In closing, Black challenged Farm Bureau members to spend the next 30 minutes thinking of ways they could promote agriculture in their local communities, prepare young farmers to assume leadership roles in the organization and recruit new members.

Duvall ended the general session by announcing that Georgia Farm Bureau will celebrate its 75th anniversary throughout 2012 and culminate the yearlong celebration at the 2012 annual convention. Convention attendees received 75th anniversary lapel pins to kickoff the celebration.

Founded in 1937, the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation is the state’s largest general farm organization. The organization has 158 county chapters, and approximately one out of nine Georgians are involved with Farm Bureau.

Its volunteer members actively participate in local, district and state activities that promote agriculture awareness to their non-farming neighbors. GFB also has 20 commodity advisory committees that give the organization input on issues pertinent to the major commodities grown in Georgia.