Rolling pastures, football field-long chicken houses and farmers markets may
still be the idyllic image of Georgia agriculture in the public mind.
But an accurate picture of the state's multi-billion dollar industry should include barges shipping out of the Port of Savannah on their way to international destinations like Hong Kong and Mexico.
The value of chickens, pecans, cotton and other agricultural items sailing out of Savannah packed in steel freight boxes increased by 129 percent in the last six years, from $1.15 billion to $2.64 billion.
"Georgia is becoming the breadbasket for the world," said University of Georgia College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences Dean J. Scott Angle at the 2013 Farm to Port Georgia Ag Forecast at UGA on Friday. "But to do that, we have to get our products out to people who can buy them."
Of all the Georgia-produced goods shipping out of Savannah, 39 percent are agricultural, said Georgia Department of Economic Development International Trade Manager Shehzin Jafar.
And according to preliminary data from 2012, exports of multiple agricultural products increased by 50 percent last year.
While the bulk of agricultural production in the state still ships to domestic markets, the optimistic talk at Friday's ag forecast showed the industry's sharp focus on growth.
Poultry, pork and especially beef consumption has peaked in the U.S., so if Georgia's producers want to expand business, they must increasingly turn to the global marketplace.
Production of those commodities has trailed off domestically due to slowing demand and higher input prices, said USA Poultry and Egg Export Council president Jim Sumner. But global consumption of pork and chicken continues to climb.
"Producing for export is the only justification for the industry's expansion," Sumner said, noting that the broadening middle class in countries like India and China will consume greater amounts of meat, representing a tremendous opportunity for Georgia agribusiness.
Sumner's presence at the forecast underscored how important poultry production is to the state's economy, making up 36 percent of Georgia's total agricultural value.
Sumner said the countries to which Georgia exports chicken has diversified greatly in the last three years, with Mexico, Cuba and Hong Kong becoming important markets. The U.S. competes only with Brazil for chicken production, Sumner said, and has increasingly partnered with the South American country to open new markets.
The partnership makes sense, according to numbers Sumner provided, since there are plenty of customers still to be reached. Per capita, chicken consumption is relatively low in India and China. If American chicken can make inroads into those markets, "We won't have to look back," Sumner said.
Underneath many of the speakers optimistic outlooks is a weather-based reality. Drought in 2012 sent grain prices soaring. Coupled with a lowered domestic demand for poultry, pork and beef, Georgia's agricultural economy is directly tied to the plight of soy and grain farmers in the Midwest.
If the Great Plains can fend off another year of drought, UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development Director Kent Wolfe said, feed grain prices should drop and translate into greater profits for Georgia producers.
Not all the talk focused on Asia, Brazil or the Midwest.
Northeast Georgia's place in the state's agricultural economy should not be overlooked, said UGA's Cooperative Extension Program Coordinator Bobby Smith. Eight of the state's 10 biggest chicken-producing counties are in the region, as are three of the five biggest cattle producing counties.
"The next time you think of northeast Georgia, don't just think about the mountains and the Piedmont," Smith said. "Think about the agricultural contribution the region makes to the state."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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