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Some 1,411 Georgia farmers and agribusiness leaders from across the state met on Jekyll Island Dec. 3-5 for the 86th Annual Georgia Farm Bureau (GFB) Convention. The three-day event included a trade show, awards presentations and educational sessions that briefed farmers on policy and production issues affecting Georgia's major commodities.
Jekyll Island Authority Executive Director Mark Williams welcomed convention guests at the start of the general session on Dec. 4. GFB President Tom McCall delivered his annual address and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper gave an overview of what the Georgia Department of Agriculture has accomplished during his first year in office. Motivational speaker Matt Lohr encouraged members of Georgia's agriculture community to create a lasting legacy that positively impacts others.
Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, both in Atlanta due to a special session of the Georgia General Assembly, provided video messages to GFB members.
The convention's "Diggin' In" theme referenced how GFB has given Georgia farmers a united voice in the legislative halls of Atlanta and Washington, D.C., since it began in 1937, and gave GFB members a chance to enhance their leadership and advocacy skills with a series of speakers. Convention events also highlighted the leadership development and ag awareness programs the organization's 158-chapter offices and volunteer members conduct statewide to prepare the next generation of ag leaders and connect with consumers.
GFB President Tom McCall celebrated the organization's successes in 2023 during his annual address. McCall highlighted GFB legislative achievements during the past year and issues the organization is addressing. Legislative successes included influencing the increased truck weight variance for agricultural and forestry products up to 88,000 pounds and helping to establish the Georgia Ag Conservation Easement Program, which will provide state funds to preserve farmland from development.
"No matter what circumstances we face, resilience and perseverance are characteristics that make farmers who they are," McCall said. "My hope is that you will keep that attitude of diggin' in top of mind when you think about how you can help Farm Bureau remain the voice of agriculture in our great state."
He said GFB is also working to address deer crop damage, fighting for reasonable H-2A labor provisions, protecting private property rights and access to water, pushing back against burdensome EPA regulations, protecting funding for natural disaster assistance and fighting unfair trade impacts from cheap imports.
McCall pointed out that GFB hasn't wavered from its founding purpose 86 years ago to provide leadership and assistance to farmers to ensure agriculture is a thriving business.
"As a membership organization, our members are our mission. They are the reason we were founded, and they'll be the reason why we have a sustainable future," he said.
McCall, who is beginning the second year of his second two-year term, announced that he plans to run for re-election in 2024.
"We have new fields to sow, challenges to overcome and victories to be won. That is why today, with humility and dedication, I am announcing my intention to run for re-election as president of Georgia Farm Bureau," McCall said.
Via video, Gov. Kemp said that in Fiscal Year 2024 the state is making additional funds available to support research positions for citrus, blueberry, peach and peanut projects, saying these studies "are important steps in securing a prosperous future for our farmers."
He also noted the opening of a new dairy processing facility in Lowndes County, as well as the suspension of fuel and diesel taxes during the fall harvest season.
"I look forward to working alongside partners like Commissioner Harper and all of you to protect the resources our farming families depend on," Kemp said.
Jones thanked the state's farmers for their work to provide food, clothing and shelter. "I just want to tell you how much I appreciate Farm Bureau and all its members and what you do for the great state of Georgia. Agriculture is the number one industry, and it can't be said enough," Jones said. "We can't ever forget what our small and large farmers do for our state's economy."
Georgia's 17th Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper gave an overview of what the Georgia Department of Agriculture has accomplished since he took office in January.
"Your Georgia Department of Agriculture staff works on your behalf day in and day out. We issue over 70 different licenses for Georgians," said Harper, a seventh-generation farmer from Irwin County. "I can't think of another state agency that impacts every Georgian every day.
Harper discussed the GDA's efforts to increase consumers' understanding of agriculture.
"Urban Georgians depend on rural Georgia to feed and clothe them. Rural Georgians depend on urban Georgians to buy their products," Harper said. "We [farmers] have to make others understand how we do what we do and why. Most people think agriculture is cows, sows and plows. We've got to educate consumers to realize the technology and innovative production practices farmers are using to grow their food while protecting the soil and water on their farms."
One way the GDA worked to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers this year was by partnering with the Atlanta Braves to promote its Georgia Grown program that spotlights food items grown and processed in the state.
Harper said the GDA Food Safety Team passed its third-year audit and that the GDA Meat Inspection Team is doing such a good job that the USDA has asked it to teach inspectors in other states.
Since the first non-native yellow-legged hornet was detected in the U.S. in the Savannah area on Aug. 9, Harper said the GDA has worked with the USDA Animal Protection Health Inspection Service and UGA College of Agriculture staff to identify, trap and eradicate five nests of the invasive species.
The GDA has prioritized eradicating and limiting the spread of the hornet because it is a predator of pollinators. There are more than 100 different commodities that rely on pollinators to fertilize crop plants and make a crop such as watermelons, blueberries, strawberries, corn and many vegetables grown in Georgia, according to the GDA. Harper has said in previous statements that pollinators have about a $450 million impact on Georgia agriculture.
The GDA has launched a biweekly newsletter, The Yellow-Legged Ledger, to provide important updates. Sign up for The Yellow-Legged Ledger here .
Harper said the GDA is working to address the feral hog population in rural Georgia causing significant crop loss.
"We've reinstated the feral hog task force and we're working alongside the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Soil & Water Conservation Service to implement trapping and eradication programs," Harper said.
He thanked Farm Bureau for partnering with the GDA on projects and praised GFB's advocacy and agriculture awareness efforts.
"You have a phenomenal team working to promote agriculture, to educate others about it and to represent agriculture in Atlanta and D.C.," Harper said.
Jekyll Island (JI) Authority Executive Director Mark Williams gave a preview of some improvements the authority is making to expand the JI Campground and to improve the golf courses. The authority is adding 56 camping sites and six yurts to the campground, Williams said.
"This is the highest volume campground in Georgia's State Park system," said Williams, who previously served 14 years as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Williams said the Mercer University Medical School has opened a clinic in the JI's main shopping village on the beach that offers urgent and primary medical care for Jekyll visitors, the island's 600 permanent residents and area residents.
"State legislation mandates that 65% of the island must remain undeveloped, and we're about maxed out on development" Williams said.
He encouraged convention attendees to drive around the island at night to enjoy the Holly Jolly Christmas Light display that JI employees started putting up in July.
"We appreciate Georgia Farm Bureau continuing to hold your convention here and look forward to you returning," Williams said.
While delivering the GFB annual convention keynote speech, fifth-generation farmer, father and agriculture advocate Matt Lohr encouraged members of Georgia's ag community to create a lasting legacy for agriculture that positively impacts others by making their voice heard.
Through the years, Lohr has advocated for agriculture in numerous roles which include USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief under former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and now as Virginia's Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.
Lohr encouraged convention attendees to persevere and draw on their faith when tough times come. He discussed the importance of accepting that although life isn't fair, you can turn negatives into positives by being determined and playing the hands you've been dealt wisely. Lastly, Lohr encouraged Farm Bureau staff and volunteers to gladly serve others by loving, growing and serving. "Welcome and greet customers when they come in the door. Bad or good interactions can stay with people for years," Lohr said. "It's the little things we do that will make the greatest impact and make a difference in someone's life to leave a positive legacy."
Lohr and his two children own Valley Pike Farm in the Shenandoah Valley where they produce poultry, beef, sweet corn and soybeans.
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