Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association
With more than 170,000 acres in production across the state, fruit and vegetable growing is a billion dollar industry in Georgia. The industry accounts for many of the state’s major agricultural cash crops. “When you lump all fruit and vegetable production together, it adds up to more than a billion dollars in economic impact,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA). “Collectively, we’re a major economic driver.”
And it’s more than just peaches and pecans, two crops that have become synonymous with the state; Georgia produces a wide variety of fruit and vegetables. “Peaches and pecans are major crops but Vidalia onions are widely known, and as of 2015, Georgia produces the most poundage of blueberries than anywhere else in the country,” notes Hall.
At the forefront of the industry is GFVGA. The association not only promotes the fruit and vegetable bounty the state has to offer, but also helps educate the public and producers.
Connecting consumers to producers
GFVGA provides programs and services to its membership, designed to increase production efficiencies, provide educational opportunities, promote new markets, monitor legislation and advocate for producers’ best interest, along with encouraging applied research and improved communications across GFVGA members and industry suppliers.
“We work to educate the public and show them farmers are working hard to produce a safe product and secondly to educate them on where their food comes from,” says Samantha Kilgore, director of marketing for the GFVGA. “The general public is starting to get really interested in local produce and farming, so we are trying to use this movement to promote products made right here in Georgia.”
This advocacy starts in the classroom. “Over the last several years we’ve been working on a farm-to-school program,” says Hall. “First, we’re trying to get locally grown products into schools and second, helping children understand where products come from and how the farm plays a role.”
“We are in the process of producing a series of videos, specific to different commodities in the state,” adds Kilgore. “We want to use these videos as a teaching aid to expose children to what their food looks like and where it comes from – beginning to end.”
Negotiating fair regulations
The farm-to-school program is just one side of GFVGA. The association also offers educational sessions and works with state, regional and federal agencies to come to reasonable terms in new laws and regulations that impact producers.
“One of the biggest challenges for our membership is constantly adapting to new food safety regulations required by retailers and the Food and Drug Administration [FDA],” says Kilgore.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which is set for final release by July 2015, is sure to affect how many growers do business. “Many of our growers already follow a food-safety initiative on their farm, but this new act will put out more regulations growers will have to follow,” says Hall. “Our role is to educate growers in the changes but also to educate regulators on what’s reasonable and what’s not. Oftentimes, when they write the regulations, they’re not out on the farm, so that’s where we come in, to make sure the rules and regulations are reasonable, and if not, we work with them to make corrections.”
“Growers selling to large retailers have to abide by high food safety rules and undergo third-party audits,” adds Hall. “So many are already familiar with these standards, but GFVGA offers a consulting service to help growers get their farm practices up to standards if they’re not familiar.”
The premier growers’ event
In light of new regulations trickling down, GFVGA offered a series of focused educational sessions on food safety at the annual Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference in January 2015. The event features three days of educational workshops and seminars, a two-day trade show and several other evening networking opportunities.
The conference is the premier agricultural producers’ convention in the southeast, attracting more than 3,000 produce industry members. Jointly hosted with the South Carolina and Georgia Peach Councils, the Savannah-based event is one of the few dedicated to fruit and vegetable growers in the country.
“Other conferences are retailer based, but the Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference is dedicated to growers, from production updates to ways to improve efficiencies on the farm, business development and networking to how to navigate regulations; there is a wealth of knowledge available at this event,” says Kilgore.
In 2014, trade show coordinators added 50 booths to accommodate growing exhibitor numbers. This year, even more space was utilized on the trade show floor.
“Expanding the trade show floor is an exciting process,” says Hall. “It means our exhibitors are finding it worth their time, and our attendees are enjoying their networking experience on the floor.”
As the produce industry continues to evolve, GFVGA strives to deliver valuable information to keep growers abreast with changes that impact their bottom line. The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association continues to offer grassroots education, advocacy and leadership, allowing producers in Georgia to flourish.