Today, Tuesday, February 12, 2008, is a seminal moment. The vegetable growers of Georgia must vote on the issue of establishing the Georgia Agricultural Commodity Commission for Vegetables and their ballots must be postmarked no later than today.
It is an attempt to secure funds — especially for research — but also some for education, marketing and promotion to help the Georgia vegetable industry to prosper.
Yet, by combining many smaller items under one commission, Georgia is taking a leadership role that may have national implications.
We asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to see if we could learn more about this intriguing project:
Georgia Fruit & Vegetable
Growers Association (GFVGA)
Georgia Agricultural Commodity
Commission for Vegetables (GCCV)
L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms, Inc.
Q: What jumpstarted this initiative to create a statewide commodity board to handle multiple vegetables?
A: BO: Some of us vegetable growers got together three or four years ago with a common concern; they’re cutting everything back with research and there are not a lot of government funds to help us do anything. As a grower you always need money for research to understand and deal with crop diseases, production problems and other field issues. You’ve got the Cotton Commission, the Peanut Commission, assessments on cows, and assessments on Vidalia onions that we grow down here. When we have a problem, we have to have someone to help us fix it so it won’t put us out of business.
Q: Are these shortfalls you’re trying to alleviate primarily related to staff and funding cutbacks at University extension ag programs and in horticulture research? How serious is the situation? Is the problem escalating or do you see signs of improvement?
A: CHARLES: Financial cutbacks have always been an issue, at least since the mid-nineties, when we experienced significant reductions in state and federal funds at universities. Fortunately, in the last few years, state funds have gone back to support agriculture in universities.
We’re still not up to where we were in 1995. Now, compared to ten years ago, we have fewer researchers, and less county extension agents. We have 159 counties in Georgia. County offices gain university faculty members through land-grant institutions under the extension program. The whole purpose is to disseminate information generated at the university. It is very grower-focused.
Resources are not at the level we need. Several researchers who work on vegetable projects basically don’t have enough funding to complete their work. We’re not unique in Georgia. Across the nation, federal support continues to be very shaky.
Q: How did the process to develop a marketing order unfold?
A: BO: The Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture handpicked a group of growers to work on this project, sending staff from the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) to help us. We started pushing forward on this about two-and-a-half years ago.
A: CHARLES: We sent a letter to the Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture to have a statewide commodity board for multiple vegetables established. If the industry shows interest, the Commissioner, in accordance with state law, has the authority to do that.
The Georgia Agricultural Commodity Commission for Vegetables (GCCV) was established in 2006 to determine if there was interest in a marketing order. Five grower/producers were selected to sit on the board with the Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture and President of the Georgia Farm Bureau; those two positions will generally have a representative to attend meetings.
The Commissioner also appointed an advisory committee to help them work through the marketing order proposal. These included extension personnel and industry representatives; 12 to 15 people met with the Commission to discuss the issues. This was a collaborative effort.
We spent roughly 18 months working through all the parameters.
Q: How unique is a statewide commodity board like this? Is it similar to California Tree Fruit Agreement that handles peaches, plums and nectarines?
A: CHARLES: It is unique from the standpoint of having many different vegetables, rather than just a one-crop marketing order. Based on the Georgia Attorney General ruling, as long as the crops are identified in the marketing order, we could have a marketing order for multiple crops.
Q: Do other states have statewide commodity orders covering a multitude of smaller to mid volume crops?
A: CHARLES: We are not aware of any.
Q: What commodities are included or excluded and why?
A: CHARLES: It was a conscious decision of the Vegetable Commission not to include any vegetable or fruit that has a marketing order or is already being covered with monies elsewhere. Vidalia has a federal marketing order. Georgia watermelon growers already have measures in place through a national watermelon marketing order.
The kicker is you have to be growing 50 acres of vegetables annually — otherwise you are under our threshold and will not pay any assessment. In the end, nine vegetables met the requirements and were included in the proposal: beans, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, cantaloupe, mixed greens, cabbage and sweet corn.
We requested 12 vegetables be included in the Order. They determined three didn’t have sufficient levels of production to warrant that. The feeling was that for the others, the smaller acreage might make people vote against it. Looking at revenue generated from each commodity, some of the specialty items were harder to define, like southern peas. We grow them in Georgia but they are not a major crop. Eggplant is the same way, as well as specialty peppers.
In addition, we were looking at commonality of the product and how to define marketing units for that product. Every vegetable is marketed a little different; in a one pound box, another in a bin. Growers would be assessed 1 cent per marketing unit.
Q: How much money do you anticipate generating through the assessments?
A: CHARLES: We’re estimating we’ll raise in the $400,000 range for the first year. From a staff standpoint, we’re not expecting to have much expense, with very low overhead overall. The Order would be administered through the Georgia Department of Agriculture. The money wouldn’t be spent until 2009.
Q: How will the money be divvied up? Have you determined the percentages of funds that would be earmarked for different programs?
A: CHARLES: We can use the money for marketing, promotion, education or research. Overwhelming the growers wanted to see the money used for research.
The Commission has voted that at least 75 percent of the funds will go for research.
This is not a part of the marketing order, but of operating procedure. They can change that number down the road. They wanted the growers to have assurance from those seated that they have heard the growers’ wishes to use the money for research.
Q: How are you defining “research”? What is the research?
A: BO: From the growers’ perspective, research is related to production, looking at chemicals, pesticides, seed varieties, disease control, etc. We have major problems in Georgia with diseases affecting cucumbers, watermelons, and peppers.
We do have researchers funded by the University of Georgia. This will be an additional help to that. There are only so many university positions and so much they can do. We continue to see funds reduced at state and federal level for university research. Our growers felt this Marketing Order was a great opportunity for them to put money back into the industry.
Q: Would there be any reason why a grower would want to opt out of this opportunity?
A: CHARLES: The only reason a grower wouldn’t vote for it is they don’t want to pay the assessment. That is the primary reason we anticipated hearing going into these meetings, but it isn’t. The first question was, how do we guarantee the money will be used how we want it used? That vote to earmark such a high percentage of funds for research was done for that reason.
In terms of research, growers’ interest is primarily production research, applied research to their growing practices. It doesn’t limit looking for new varieties. It would have effect in the field and packing facility. Their goal in putting money into the Commission is looking for ways to improve their bottom line, more efficient, less costly ways to farm and improve business operations.
Q: In this state-wide multiple vegetable marketing order, would funds also be used for marketing/promotion programs and, if so, how? Would the campaign need to target all nine commodities paying assessments?
A: BO: As a Vidalia onion grower, I have seen what a marketing order has done for the Vidalia onion. Over the years, the funds assessed under our onion marketing order has built consumer awareness and loyalty to the Vidalia onion and it has provided funds for research projects to address issues specific to onion production. I have served as a director on the Vidalia Onion Committee and also as its Chairman.
A: CHARLES: With at least 75 percent of funds earmarked for research, there’s still another 25 percent that could be used in areas of marketing, such as Georgia Grown promotion work, or for education purposes to support grower knowledge on how to improve production or marketing techniques.
The general feeling is that the level of funding this will generate won’t be enough to build a meaningful branding campaign. It takes a bunch of bucks to create consumer awareness. To really have the affect of ‘ Got Milk?’ or Vidalia onions, to get consumers to recognize a Georgia vegetable you’re talking mega bucks. This Marketing Order won’t generate that kind of funding.
If the Commission decides, that funding allotment could be used for in-store tastings at supermarkets, as long as it is spending for the fruits and vegetables included in the Order. We have a strong sweet corn industry. The Commission could earmark funds to promote sweet corn. It might help others along the way, but it would be focused on marketing Georgia sweet corn.
Q: With heightened food safety awareness, are you earmarking funds for more research in this area?
A: CHARLES: Research work could identify solutions to food safety issues. As far as funding a food safety program, I’m not sure that would be covered under the Commission, perhaps from an educational standpoint. Certainly funds generated could be used for research for food safety on the farm.
There have been questions at the federal level for federal marketing orders on how much food safety should be included in a marketing order. The debate has kind of gone back and forth, whether food safety issues can be identified under marketing orders.
Q: Where are you in the process now?
A: CHARLES: In fall 2007, a draft marketing order was finalized and communicated to growers in nine meetings held in November and December of 07 in order to get feedback. I was at every one of those meetings. We had the Commissioner there, and we had pretty good attendance from the growers; 120 to 125 growers, a decent showing out of 400 effective growers, reaching 20 percent or so.
At that time, the Commission decided to move forward with a public hearing. Prior to putting a marketing order before voters, you are required to have an official hearing for public testimony. We held that hearing at our convention on January 10. Bo presented testimony for the Marketing Order as part of Georgia law.
After getting the input, we were at a turning point; we could halt the idea if we didn’t have enough interest in it, or we could make changes, or we could proceed with the actions necessary to enact the Marketing Order. Based on the feedback, we made the decision to move forward.
Q: What percentage of growers needs to vote in support of the order for it to become legally binding?
A: CHARLES: For the Marketing Order to pass, we have to have at least 25 percent of affected growers voting, and of those voting we have to have a 66 percent positive vote. If we look at 400 growers affected, at least 100 must approve.
Growers are voting right now. The 30-day vote started January 14 and will run through February 12.
Q Do you have a sense of whether the order will pass?
A: BO: I think it will pass. We haven’t hit our percentage yet, but we’re hopeful.
A: CHARLES: We’re pushing it. We’re getting close, 15 to 20 votes short of where we need to be. That doesn’t mean everyone is voting for the order, but we believe most growers are voting yes.
Quite honestly, when we did meetings across the state we had no objection to the order itself. The biggest question that came up was, how is this money going to be used?
Q: With the final voting day upon us, is there any last minute advice you have for those growers sitting on the fence?
A: CHARLES: Mainly we are encouraging people to vote. We need 25 percent of growers to vote. In a meeting recently, I was talking to three growers on the list of eligible voters and I asked them, ‘did you vote?’, and they said, ‘no not yet.’ One said, ‘the ballot’s on my desk.’ Another said he didn’t have time to get around to it. Everyone waits till the last minute.
We did a frequently-asked-questions form for the Commission that can help growers sort out the issues.(You can read it here). It talks about the referendum, how the process works, etc.
There was a list we worked through to determine eligible voters. If a grower in Georgia received a ballet in the mail from the Georgia Department of Agriculture, they need to vote, for or against the marketing order. If they’re on the list but not affected for some reason, perhaps they are no longer in business, there’s a number on the ballot they should call to let us know.
If they are affected and did not receive a ballot, they need to call our office or Georgia Department of Agriculture. There is still time. The ballot needs to be post-marked by February 12.
The whole effort grows out of a frustration with getting enough funds, especially to conduct research related to horticultural issues. Federal and state funds are always tight; the Georgia cooperative extension just can’t do it all. So the growers are looking to invest in building their own industry.
It is an effort with national implications. Commodity boards with mandatory assessments have typically been limited to larger items because even frugal administrative costs, if applied to an assessment of only, say, $50,000 a year, make the whole project not make sense.
Yet, by combining nine items, they’ve managed to make what previously was not sensible into an entirely pragmatic possibility. We can expect other states to pursue a similar plan.
Irvin is the longest-serving Secretary or Commissioner of Agriculture in the country, yet, interestingly enough, Georgia keeps coming up with innovative ideas. This is a particularly good one.
Georgia growers now have another opportunity to lead the industry while strengthening their home state and their own operations. But they need to act now.
Remember, ballots must be postmarked today, February 12, 2008.