*Warning: This is a much longer post than normal. Hang in there until the end.*
In May, Class IV embarked on our first journey outside of Virginia for our national trip to South Carolina and Georgia. (Since Darius Rucker hails from Charleston, a natural song selection for this blog’s title was “Southern State of Mind“. )Why did we choose these states? When considering our options for the national trip, in addition to logistics, we thought about the applicability to Virginia agriculture. We always want to ultimately take what we learn and apply it to our roles here in the industry. At first glance, GA and SC agriculture look a lot like the Virginia we know, heavy in row crops and livestock. As you continue reading, you’ll see that this is not necessarily the case. And while it’s important to view different aspects of agriculture, it’s also equally important to take a look at those who do what you do, to compare and contrast. Our fellow southern region states are both our partners and competitors, and South Carolina and Georgia are doing some innovative things to take notice of!
Happy Cow Creamery
Happy Cow Creamery in Pelzer, SC is a dairy/bottling operation/retail store run by the Trantham family. Utilizing a unique grazing program known as “12 Aprils”, they were able to reduce their feed bill per head from 82 cents to 61 cents, in addition in increasing productivity. The numbers don’t lie!
The sheer scope and size of the Titan Farms operation is unbelievable. Titan Farms alone produces more peaches than the entire state of Georgia! As you can imagine, this means labor is the number one challenge for the company, which employees 850 H2A workers. We had the opportunity to tour both the fields and orchards and processing facilities.
Yon Family Farms
Yon is synonymous in the beef cattle industry for top of the line genetics. The best part about visiting the Yon family was hearing the story of how they got to where they are today. I won’t try to tell it as well as Kevin Yon did, but let’s just say there was a little bit of fate and a lot of hard work involved. After starting out with 100 acres and 100 cows, the Yons now work 4,500 acres and 1,500 cows. In addition, they operate a retail pecan operation.
At our next stop, we got a two-for-one deal with McCorkle Nurseries and the Center for Applied Nursery Research, located on the same property. McCorkle Nurseries is a large family-owned operation that supplies Lowes and Home Depot and is known for being a leader in technology and innovation. In that vein, they helped start the Center for Applied Nursery Research in partnership with the University of Georgia. The Center addresses industry needs in terms of research and development.
Perhaps the most inspiring stop was Comfort Farms, a place for veterans designed to “absorb the noise” and be a “platform for self-care.” Different from programs such as Homegrown by Heroes and the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, Comfort Farms is not aiming to create farmers, but instead focuses on the healing part of military transition. Veterans need a team environment and mission, and helping on a farm is a natural fit. The founder, Jon Jackson, drew several parallels between farmers and veterans: Both make up a very small percent of the population, and both are very service-oriented. In addition to gaining a new perspective on the farmer-veteran relation, we were treated to a delicious meal of local products cooked right on the farm.
White Hills Farms
The award for the best-smelling stop goes to White Hills Farm! I now have a favorite type of lavender (Spanish, in case you were wondering). This lavender farm showcased its niche market/retail aspects. Products are primarily sold on site and through 3 farmers markets, about 30-45 minutes away from the farm. A really cool example of states coming together is the chocolate bar pictured above. The lavender is grown on White Hills Farm in Georgia, but the chocolate bar itself is made in South Carolina, making it eligible for the “Certified SC Product” label. Very unique flavor!
We visited Hillcrest Farms to learn about their new state-of-the-art robotic dairy that is being installed. This was described as “prepaying for labor for 10 years.” The owner, Mark Rogers, was clear in that they are not replacing labor. If an employee can adapt and learn the new system, they have a job. One of the biggest draws of the robots is that they reduce the risk of industry, because most injuries occur going to and from the parlor. Impressively, Hillcrest Farms has the highest producing herd in Georgia. Given the current state of the dairy industry, Mr. Rogers noted that the extra pounds per cow has kept them in business.
Generation Farms in Vidalia, GA grows just under 1,200 acres of onions, including several different varieties. This may seem obvious, but an onion must be grown in Vidalia to be called a “Vidalia.” In addition, the GA Department of Agriculture owns the marketing rights to Vidalia and determines the dates an onion can be sold to warrant that name. There are about 30 Vidalia varieties. As we heard many times throughout our trip, labor is the biggest cost for Generation Farms. .
Nine Twenty Cattle & Company
We visited the slaughterhouse portion of Nine Twenty Cattle & Company, which is also comprised of a cattle herd and a fencing operation. The young farmer couple, Jarred and Becca Creasy, (9/20 is their wedding anniversary) spoke candidly about the challenges of farm transition/getting into farming and how difficult it is to start and operate a slaughterhouse if you are not given one. Similar to Virginia, we talked about how challenging it is for producers who could benefit from a processing facility in their area, but the demand just isn’t there to make such a business sustainable.
Port of Savannah
Switching gears from the production aspect, we spent some time at the Port of Savannah. Agricultural products make up 70% of Georgia’s total export tonnage. Interestingly, unlike Virginia, the port’s operations are self-sustaining and are not part of the state budget. One of the hot issues in agriculture right now is Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs), and I was surprised to hear that come up as one of the challenges for the port as well. Of course, this makes sense when you think about the mass amounts of goods that are transported by trucks, not only to this port, but Georgia’s inland ports as well. Switching gears, our Governmental Affairs tour guide, Lee Beckmann, mentioned a great tip for leadership: “It’s not important to claim successes.” Meaning, when you’re working as a team, the most critical thing is functioning as a unit and achieving the goal.
Marine Resources Research Institute
The Marine Resources Research Institute was the most “out of our wheelhouse” for Class IV, which means it’s probably where we asked the most questions. However, as our conversations unfolded, connections were made to agriculture. The topic of GMOs came up, as neither they nor antibiotics are allowed in the aquaculture industry. Also, similarly to how lesser used parts of livestock can serve valuable purposes, horseshoe crab blood is used in an extract that detects bacterial contamination in intravenous drugs.
So much was learned on this trip, and a HUGE thank you goes out to all who hosted us throughout our journey. We could not have asked for more gracious and hospitable contacts. Our last day of the trip was spent at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture–stay tuned for a post just on that portion!