Georgia farmers grow more vegetables than Georgians can eat each year. The extra is shipped and sold to other places. But there's one big place farmers haven't shipped to that could bring them and Georgia's economy more money in the future.
When it comes to vegetables, it's all about timing. And the time is right for Georgia vegetable farmers to sell their produce to consumers around the world. Something they've done little of in the past, says Greg Fonsah, a University of Georgia Extension Service vegetable economist.
Georgia's mild climate allows farmers to grow vegetables virtually year-round. As a result, Georgia's vegetable production has steadily grown since the mid-1980s and has surpassed what Georgians can eat.
For example, Fonsah says Georgia farmers grow about 248.5 million pounds of cabbage annually. This is more than three times what Georgians consume. The average Georgian eats about 8.5 pounds of cabbage a year.
Georgia farmers also produce about 176 million pounds of cucumbers each year. Again, more than three times what is consumed in Georgia. The average Georgian eats about 6.9 pounds of cucumbers each year.
It's the same for other vegetables like onions, beans and bell peppers, Fonsah says.
Northern states and Canada are the main out-of-state buyers of Georgia vegetables. But there's always room for other markets, says Kent Hamilton, a vegetable farmer in Colquitt County in southwest Georgia.
Vegetables are very time sensitive, Hamilton says. For good crops, farmers must plant, water and fertilize them at the right times. And come harvest, they have to be ready to pick and sell their crops fast. As most consumers know, veggies don't stay fresh long.
“We always need to look at other places to potentially sell our produce because we are dealing with a perishable commodity that you have to do something with,” Hamilton says. “Sometimes markets do become saturated, and there are no places to sell.”
The global economy is and will continue to be driven by consumers. And Fonsah believes it's time for Georgia vegetables to step onto the world stage.
But just because Georgia farmers can grow almost any vegetable, doesn't mean they should, Fonsah says. Georgia produces about 33 different vegetables.
“We need to concentrate on what we grow the best and the cheapest,” he says, “and be sensitive to what consumers want to buy. A farmer should have his crop sold before he even plants it.”
Many Georgia farmers are listening to consumers, he says, and now grow and package their produce accordingly. But it's time for more to follow suit.
The U.S. dollar has weakened over the last year, making U.S. products, like vegetables, more attractive to overseas buyers, Fonsah says.
The Caribbean buys about 95 percent of its vegetables from the U.S. Fonsah recently visited the region. The only Georgia vegetables he found were baby carrots. That's it.
“The time is right,” Fonsah says. “It's time for Georgia to export more and capture some of this region's market.”
The same could be said for other regions of the world.
Georgia's vegetable industry is one of the largest in the nation. It's worth about $600 million a year. And a lot of that vegetable money finds its way into the small, rural economies of south Georgia, where most Georgia vegetables are grown. You find more money for vegetables, and you'll insert more money into these economies, he said.
Georgia farmers are concerned about selling their produce overseas, Fonsah says. Some feel dealing with new, foreign buyers and the extra costs of shipping overseas is too risky and costly. And they would have to manage their farms differently.
“But with high risks are associated high returns,” Fonsah says.
Georgia's veggie growers can learn, he said, to minimize their risks and take advantage of a world market ripe for quality Georgia produce. And timing is everything.