As the human population increases, we need to be able to provide more food, fiber, and energy in ways that do not degrade the ecosystems and social systems on which we depend. There is a need to develop farming systems that reduce input costs, rebuild soil quality, increase profitability, and help to rebuild rural communities. In Georgia, demand for local, sustainable food far exceeds the supply, but policy and lack of infrastructure limit the development of local, sustainable food systems. A revitalized local/regional food system can potentially create new economic growth in rural communities that will help them survive and rebuild. The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (UGA) and Fort Valley State University College of Agriculture, Family Sciences, and Technology (FVSU) are leading state efforts to develop and promote sustainable farming and food systems. The goal of this planning grant was to mobilize stakeholders and faculty to come together and envision ways to strengthen sustainable agriculture programs in Georgia.
The SARE Planning grant effort was built on several steps that FVSU and UGA have taken over the past five years. In 2006, a faculty task force at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UGA met to identify current gaps in sustainable agriculture programs and make recommendations on how the College should address those gaps. The Task Force identified several existing areas of expertise that could be developed into focus areas. These included: certified organic blueberry, Vidalia onion, and peanut production; grazing beef and dairy production, local food systems, and sustainable biofuel production.
During 2007, UGA partnered with FVSU on several projects to obtain stakeholder input for developing sustainable agriculture programs. A Southern SARE Model State Enhancement Grant was used to conduct focus groups and a survey of fruit and vegetable growers to identify areas for which these farmers would like to see additional research and training. Interest was expressed in methods to reduce inputs and maintain soil fertility, water conservation, fuel conservation, alternative marketing, and crop rotations. In June 2008, FVSU, UGA, and Southern SARE sponsored a Sustainable Agriculture Summit at FVSU that was attended by over 190 people with strong minority and limited resource farmer participation. Small group breakout sessions identified critical needs. The top four were: education of young people, development of local meat processing facilities, “place-based” research, and additional local infrastructure (e.g seed cleaning or organic processing facilities).
Based on this stakeholder input and faculty interest, the SARE Planning process originally focused on outlining a small fruit/vegetable production system and a grazing system that would represent models of sustainability to support a local food system. The process began with an Agricultural Systems Workshop held in Athens on March 17, 2010 with a teleconference link to FVSU. The workshop had 50 participants from all schools or colleges at UGA and FVSU, faculty from Valdosta State University, personnel from USDA Agricultural Research Service as well as from the Center for Disease Control. The Workshop allowed several collaborative projects to form. Participants were asked to volunteer to be a member of the planning group that would outline an approach for a Southern SARE Matching Grant proposal.
Because the goals of the Planning grant included teaching as well as research and extension, a small group of nine faculty, representing most departments at UGA CAES, met to discuss how sustainable agriculture could be integrated into teaching and degree programs. Dr. Jean Bertrand, Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at CAES, provided a list of sustainable agriculture programs in the United States for reference. After discussion, the group concluded that the Organic Agriculture Certificate Program and the Local Food Systems Certificate Program provided good opportunities for undergraduate students at UGA, and the focus should be on developing a Sustainable Agriculture Certificate for graduate students that could be modeled on the Meteorology Certificate at UGA. A certificate was thought to be a better approach than trying to develop an interdepartmental major. The group wanted to pursue joint course development with FVSU, particularly for Maymester courses. These recommendations were shared with FVSU and fed into the planning process.
A planning group of 38 people was drawn from interested workshop participants with the addition of county agents from UGA and FVSU as well as stakeholders representing farmers, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Georgia Department of Agriculture, and Georgia Organics (Table 1). Before the planning meeting, a list of resources for vegetable and grazing systems currently available in Georgia was developed (Available in white paper – Sustainable Food Systems to Support Georgia’s Agrarian Future) and a list of qualitative indicators of a sustainable agriculture system was developed to guide the discussions (Table 2).
The planning group met at FVSU on July 28, 2010 with 26 participants. The planning process was narrowly defined to meet the requirements for a SARE Matching Grant proposal that would identify a small fruit/vegetable production and a grazing system as focus areas that would support a local food system. The group was to outline a specific system to focus on, identify resources available or missing to develop those systems, and identify how the potential matching grant would be used to build these focus areas. The group discussed the overall goals of a matching grant then broke into vegetable and grazing groups to outline approaches for these systems. For both systems, we wanted to detail research to answer specific questions on profitability, quality of life, or environmental impacts; allow creation of demonstration projects so that science-based information is available for farmers and the public; and engage students in learning about sustainable agricultural production and food systems. The grazing group identified key research topics and an approach to address those topics. The vegetable group took a broader approach and identified overarching goals that needed to be addressed to support sustainable agriculture in Georgia. Several key questions were asked by the planning group. What agricultural systems are most sustainable for Georgia? How do the existing agricultural systems in the state compare in terms of a life cycle analysis for energy use, water use and impacts, and land use? How can we develop sustainable farming systems that will support a family?
To finish the planning process, the group decided to form a vegetable sub-committee that would identify specific research, teaching and extension goals for this system. This group met through a conference call to identify these goals. Finally, we also developed a survey to prioritize all the different ideas identified in the planning meeting. The entire planning group was asked to vote on their top three priorities. The votes were tallied using a weighted average and the top six priorities were:
Developing a Statewide Strategic Plan,
Establishing a Sustainable Agriculture Center/Institute,
Quantifying Energy Use, Needs and Impacts for Sustainable Ag,
Increasing Available Markets,
Creating and Documenting Successful Models for Mid-scale Vegetable Production Systems, and
Creating and Documenting Successful Models for a Year-round Multi-species Grazing System.
As the political and economic landscape has changed over the course of the planning process, the goal of the planning group evolved from planning for a SARE Matching grant to providing a map for efforts over the next five years to pursue sustainable production systems that will support a local/regional system. Consequently, although the approach developed could be used for a Southern SARE Matching grant proposal, if these become available, its larger purpose was to coalesce and guide sustainable agriculture efforts over the next five years.
The Planning Committee chose to implement its strategy by forming the Georgia Sustainable Agriculture Consortium – a multidisciplinary group of faculty and stakeholders that will develop sustainable agricultural systems to support local/regional food hubs. The planning committee felt creating a statewide consortium to work on sustainable agriculture issues would be more effective than focusing on trying to create a Center or Institute at a particular institution. They also recognized that creating a statewide strategic plan was not feasible at this time. The Consortium has brought together key players in the Georgia agricultural community to leverage this work in the state. Members include UGA, FVSU, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Organics, Georgia Farm Bureau, Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, Macon Community Health Works, Valdosta State University, Center of Innovation for Agribusiness, USDA Agricultural Research Service, and Georgia Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Coordinating Committee includes representatives of these groups and farmers.
Goals for the Consortium over the next five years are:
• Form a working network structure that will facilitate interaction between key institutions and stakeholders,
• Quantify barriers and infrastructure needed for local/regional food hub development,
• Conduct life cycle analysis of vegetable and grazing systems,
• Begin research on multi-species grazing systems,
• Increase research and extension on mid-scale vegetable production systems, and
• Create two local/regional food hubs in Georgia.
Over the long term, the Consortium will foster the growth of mid-scale agriculture in Georgia, improve the sustainability of existing and new farms and promote cooperation to build a more secure economic and environmental future for the state.
The Consortium was launched on October 27, 2011 with the keynote speaker – Dr. Jim Barham from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. There were 150 attendees and teleconference links to Macon and Sylvania, GA. The full Consortium White Paper – Sustainable Food Systems to Support Georgia’s Agrarian Future – is linked below or can be accessed at: http://www.sustainagga.org/gsac/index.html.
Since the formation of the Consortium in the fall of 2011, four grassroots groups have formed to explore developing a food hub in their area. Three of these groups have formed steering committees and have feasibility studies underway. Consortium members have been actively helping these groups by providing technical support. We have given presentations on food hubs to several other potentially interested groups and are developing a presentation with speaker notes on the basics of food hubs for interested parties to use across the state.
There were several information needs identified. One large question was whether or not there were a sufficient number of interested farmers to form any food hubs. We initiated an online and hardcopy farmer needs assessment survey to determine if there were interested farmers, their location, and primary products. All the Consortium member organizations helped encourage their members to participate in the survey. The survey will be completed in August 2012. The pilot survey data has already been used as part of the planning process for one of the food hub groups.
We also initiated a structured interview survey of potential food hub operations in the state to identify existing infrastructure and serve as a baseline. We were able to obtain a summer intern with GIS skills from an in-service learning grant who helped conduct the survey and mapped the results. The intern is also mapping the results of the farmer needs assessment survey for public use.
Life Cycle Analysis
The planning process and formation of the Consortium prompted new faculty collaborations with farmers and aggregators that wrote two grant proposals to conduct life analysis of vegetable production systems. Unfortunately, neither of the proposals was funded.
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Teaching
Participation in the planning process and the formation of the Consortium brought a new focus on sustainable agriculture at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences UGA. A group of faculty involved in the planning process began working on interdisciplinary food systems graduate degrees and two departments are currently evaluating the formation of undergraduate degrees in sustainable agriculture or sustainable food systems. In addition, faculty have joined to start a Sustainable Food Systems Initiative at UGA to promote an interdisciplinary approach to research and teaching at the university.
The SARE Planning grant allowed the formation of an active group of faculty and stakeholders who are working to address stakeholder needs identified during the process. It provided the resources to establish goals and provide a framework for moving sustainable agriculture forward over the next five years. As a result of the planning process the Georgia Sustainable Agriculture Consortium was formed to coordinate and leverage resources across the state. The Consortium includes the land-grant institutions, state regulators, NGOs representing grower groups, NGOs working in improve human health, farmers, and interested public. It will focus on supporting the development of food hubs in Georgia, working to develop or adapt sustainability metrics, and developing information to support sustainable vegetable and multi-species grazing systems. The collaborative groups formed during the planning process have begun working on these goals.
- Table 2. Qualitative indicators of a sustainable agriculture system developed for the Southern SARE Planning Grant – Focusing on the Future of Sustainable Agriculture in Georgia.
- Table 1. Characteristics of the planning committee for the Southern SARE Planning Grant – Focusing on the Future of Sustainable Agriculture in Georgia.
- Sustainable Food Systems to Support Georgia’s Agrarian Future