According to Georgia Organics president Will Harris, the “short stave in the barrel” for livestock producers in this state is processing. The opportunities to move local farm animals through local slaughterhouses are few and far between. I know of one farming family that drives pigs and sheep from Madison out Interstate 20 to the USDA-inspected processing plant in Thomson. But farther north in Hall County, there’s no facility within easy driving distance. Consequently, cow-calf producers such as my father are almost stuck with traditional sale barns, where, typically, weaned bulls are bought in bulk to be fattened in feedlots out West. While it’s a convenient arrangement no doubt, local farmers miss out on retail premiums and lose profits as their calves drop weight in the stress of going through the sale.
There is some good news, although it’s on the very distant horizon: Local, innovative abattoirs and purveyors, like EcoFriendly Foods, are gaining traction in the Mid-Atlantic region and spreading their reach southward. Will Harris himself has opened a successful on-farm processing facility in southwest Georgia. And, if nothing else, folks in the state are talking about agricultural infrastructure at last.
For Georgia’s small vegetable farmers, the most common obstacle is a simple lack of sufficient local markets. Save for those who’ve been building up a customer base for years, most producers quickly realize that the county farmers market is an out-of-the-way, sparsely-attended affair. Most selling there hope to unload some corn, a few beans, a watermelon or two; but fully expect to bring home the majority of their harvest. It’s not worth the labor, the logistics, or the gas to make $40.
Until recently, most markets outside of Atlanta offered the same disappointing experience. In Athens, before the current, highly-successful Athens Farmers Market, a smattering of small farmers met each Saturday morning to sell outside of Big City Bread restaurant, knowing they would be packing out almost as many tomatoes as they brought in.
“Those Big City Bread days were rough,” said Michael McMullan, who would drive a lonely hour each way from his farm north of Hartwell.
Perhaps McMullan might have given up on the Athens market entirely had it not been for the presence of Locally Grown–a kind of online, yet hands-off, direct marketing. Thanks to the savvy and generosity of developer Eric Wagoner, Athens Locally Grown is an easy vehicle for farmers to advertise and move their products into the hands of customers. Farmers list their inventory. Receiving an email with the available items each Sunday night, consumers visit the site to purchase what they want by Tuesday evening. Harvest takes place Wednesday and Thursday morning. And goods are exchanged at a downtown site on Thursday afternoon.
The farmers bring nothing extra, with invaluable savings in time and overhead. The customers receive the freshest food possible, with the added bonus of knowing their money is remaining within the community. It’s a win-win if there ever was one.
What follows is Wagoner’s slideshow from the Georgia Organics 2010 Conference, a visual definition of how Locally Grown works:
Unfortunately for customers of Athens Locally Grown, it looks like the two raw milk bills in the state of Georgia failed to make it out of committee.