Some people in Georgia still refer to fresh market vegetables as “truck crops.” But the size of the truck surely has changed over the last 15 years. Georgia recently was characterized in a national produce publication as “a sleeping giant” in the industry.

While Georgia's climb to fourth in the nation in fresh vegetable production (third in area harvested) has been quiet and deliberate, certainly Georgia growers haven't been sleeping.

Vegetable production in Georgia accounted for more than $630 million in 2001, making vegetables third in farm-gate value among agricultural commodities in the state. While much of the industry still revolves around traditional vegetable crops such as Vidalia onions, watermelons, sweet corn and cabbage, newer vegetable crops for Georgia help to increase the value.

Carrots now are the tenth most valuable crop (more than $25 million) among Georgia vegetables.

Vidalia onions continue to be the most valuable Georgia vegetable ($82 million) followed by watermelons, tomatoes, sweet corn, bell peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, squash and snap beans. Cantaloupe, collards, eggplant, turnip greens and zucchini squash all exceed $10 million in revenue as well. Acreage of sweet corn, cucumbers and snap beans have been increasing over the last few seasons. However, watermelon continues to lead the state in acreage with about 35,000 acres in each of the last two years.

The 2002 season has been a typical year of mixed results. The spring crop was good for the most part. Prices were much better for most crops than in the past two seasons. Yields and quality were very good overall. However, the fall has been a different story. Wet weather, combined with high insect and disease pressure, has hurt yields and quality. Although prices have held fairly well, the fall season is shaping up to be somewhat disappointing.

Indeed, Georgia growers have their challenges. Excessively high insect pressure has made production of crops such as fall squash very difficult over the last two years. Problems with tomato spotted wilt virus continue to be a concern in the tomato and bell pepper industries. Fortunately, resistant varieties in both crops have been developed to help in that regard.

Stemphylium was a major problem in onions this past spring and incidences of cabbage yellow leaf curl virus have increased.

While the dry weather has been ideal for production of high-quality yields of vegetables, the extended drought continues to be a concern. Since disease pressures generally are lower with dry conditions, the quality of produce has been exceptional in most cases. However, having enough water for irrigation is a must. As long as the well is full, growers don't mind having to irrigate rather than seeing wet weather.

Then there is the methyl bromide issue. Georgia produces about 30,000 acres of its vegetable crop using plastic mulch (mostly with drip irrigation).

This provides for greater and earlier yields for growers while conserving water and fertilizer. Much of that acreage is treated with methyl bromide for control of nematodes, soil-borne diseases and weeds (primarily nutsedge). With the ban on methyl bromide set to begin in 2005, Georgia growers are rightfully concerned about what they will do when the fumigant is no longer available.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently began accepting applications for critical use exemptions for methyl bromide. Growers are hoping this process will allow them to use methyl bromide for an additional two to three years. In the interim, scientists all over the world are researching potential alternatives. To this point, however, no alternative has been found that will replace the broad-spectrum fumigant.

Georgia submitted applications for critical use exemption for six crops: pepper, tomato, squash, cucumber, eggplant and cantaloupe. It will be next summer before Georgia growers find out if the international governing body has accepted their request for exemption for 2005-2007. Currently, the EPA is evaluating the applications.

Georgia's expanding annual grower meeting is one indication of the strength of the industry. In fact, this year it has been renamed the Southeastern Regional Fruit & Vegetable Winter Conference. The conference and trade show is held each January in Savannah. From the first meeting five years ago, the conference has grown from around 500 registrants to almost 1,300 registrants last year.

This year's conference and trade show will be held Jan. 10-12 at the Savannah Civic Center. The conference is held in conjunction with the Southeastern Peach Conference, Georgia Watermelon Annual Meeting and Southeast Blueberry Conference. There will be more than 140 exhibitors this year with educational sessions on a wide range of pertinent topics featuring speakers from all over the United States.