When Alice Rolls joined Georgia Organics as its first fulltime person in 2004, 150 people came to its annual conference—primarily farmers. At the 2015 conference, 1000 enthusiastic farmers and consumers interested in sustainability and organic issues participated. Fostering farmer prosperity and increasing the number of organic farms in the state are what keep Rolls and her staff engaged.
But at heart is a broader vision—to connect food from Georgia’s farms to families in a way that is community-based, not commodity-based. In short, to restore community to organic.
“My job is exciting because people are asking deeper questions about food,” Rolls said. “Food has the ability to effect change in so many areas: agriculture, environment, social justice, economic development, public health, education… our activation campaigns are focused on motivating citizens.”
Organic not easy to do in Georgia
Agriculture is the #1 industry in Georgia—it ranks in the top five to seven states for vegetable and fruit production—so it’s surprising to note its weak penetration into the organic sector. In 2004 there were 25 certified organic farms in the state; by 2014 there were 70, but a miniscule representation compared to New York’s 900 and Wisconsin’s 1200. Organic produce sales are up 215% in Whole Foods stores across the state, but despite organic demand, small and medium-size specialty crop producers here are not accessing this opportunity.
Georgia grows food well…there’s a long growing season, and no water challenges as in the West. But the long humid season fosters fungal diseases and insect invasions.
“We’re still small-scale here,” Rolls said. “Most farms in our network are 20 acres or less, sending crops straight to consumers—CSAs, restaurants, or farmers markets. Organic isn’t easy to do here because of the humidity. We need economic incentives and a changed mindset for farmers to move toward organic.”
100 Organic Farms program
In December 2014, Georgia Organics and Georgia Department of Agriculture kicked off the 100 Organic Farms initiative to increase the number of Certified Organic farms in the state from 70 to 100 by the end of 2016. The initiative provides 100% cost-share for certification for first-time organic farmers, as well as coaching—12 marketing experts each adopt a farm to work with for a year. Nearly 150 farms have registered interest in the campaign.
“We need to leverage the organic industry here in Georgia,” Rolls said. “We want farmers to be prosperous in the long run and our state is well positioned to be a bigger player.”
The controversy over the herbicide glyphosate may tip more farmers to go organic. “It’s helping our cause,” Rolls said. “With multiple studies pointing to harm for human health, it’s fomenting awareness of organic food for many people, pulling them out of denial. It’s not just about GMOs—but which pesticides were used on my food?”