Even the most enthusiastic statistician will concede that his or her craft can be exceedingly dull to the average person. Collecting, counting and categorizing various sets of numbers doesn't exactly smack of nonstop excitement.

But numbers sometimes can tell fascinating stories, and the stories often are in conflict with commonly held assumptions.

For example, what's the first thing that comes to mind whenever you think about Georgia agriculture? Most folks would say peanuts, since Georgia farmers grow more of them than anyone else in the United States. Others might say cotton, with Georgia being the second largest U.S. producer with 1.4 million acres this year. Or, if you're going by the license plates or the highway welcome signs, you'd be inclined to say that peaches are king in Georgia.

But that's not what the statistics tell us. You may be surprised to learn that if you're talking about the total value of Georgia commodities and farm-related enterprises, neither peanuts, cotton nor peaches is at the top of the list.

In fact, if you look at the latest numbers, you'll see that horses outrank peanuts and peaches, and they're running just slightly behind cotton. You read it right, horses.

In a recently released ranking of the value of 62 Georgia commodities and farm-related enterprises, horses climbed to fifth place last year with a value of $248 million, compared with ninth-ranked peanuts at $232 million and 24th ranked peaches at $50 million. Cotton was ranked as the state's No. 3 commodity, with a value of $502 million.

Several years ago, horses didn't even rank in the top 15, says John McKissick, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Agribusiness & Economic Development. The recent boom, he says, reflects the popularity of horseback riding among people in the Atlanta area. Horses cracked the top 10 ranking in 2000 and moved to eighth in 2001.

The report listing the “farm-gate” value of Georgia's top 62 agricultural commodities is prepared by the Athens-based agribusiness center. These commodities range from No. 1-ranked broilers, with a value of $3.2 billion, to 62nd-ranked barley at only $149,000.

Farm-gate value is based on production estimates provided by county Extension directors. The estimates are often higher than the crop values reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Statistics Service.

The agribusiness center helps farmers with enterprises designed to add value to their land, such as trail riding, agriculture and nature-based tourism and hunting leases. It also helps farmers form cooperatives and helps them consider the feasibility of processing the commodities they grow.

The center, says McKissick, surveys many more commodities than the Ag Statistics Service. “We're able to spot trends for some of these minor commodities that are moving up to major commodities. We try to look at the value of these enterprises, including government payments, that gives you a true value.”

The total farm-gate value of all 62 Georgia commodities, including government payments and crop insurance, was $8.8 billion last year.

Timber, with a value of $562 million, was the state's No. 2 commodity, followed by No. 3 cotton and No. 4 eggs ($400 million).

Completing the top 10 were No. 6 dairy ($246 million), No. 7 beef cows ($243 million), No. 8 greenhouses ($236 million) and No. 10, nurseries that grow plants in containers ($169 million).

Georgia's sweet Vidalia Onions ranked 19th with a value of $70 million. Other crops included No. 27 pecans ($46 million) and No. 38 pine straw ($22 million).

“We wish there was one big crop that would save agriculture, but that's just not the case,” says McKissick. “It's a hundred small crops.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com