Consolidation, diversification and investment in technology are current and future trends for Georgia’s commercial vegetable growers.
And organic production, a hot-button issue industry wide, isn’t being ignored either, said Tim Coolong, associate professor for the University of Georgia and extension vegetable specialist in Tifton, Ga.
“I would say organic isn’t as huge as in some other states, but it does still come up as more of the buyers are requesting it,” Coolong said.
Larger growers are allocating some acreage to organic, he said.
“Certainly the vast majority of their acreage is conventional, but they are starting to put in some organic acreage to meet that demand that the buyers are requesting.”
In terms of diversification, Coolong said growers are trying some crops that typically haven’t been associated with Georgia. Broccoli has been growing in Georgia for several years and continues to increase, and other crops like cauliflower are seeing gains, he said.
The majority of broccoli acreage is around the Tifton area, but there is some planting in east Georgia’s Vidalia region as growers there also diversify.
“Overall, growers are trying to diversify what they have to ensure against a bad year in a particular crop,” he said.
Satsuma citrus production has small acreage in the state near the Florida line and may be suited for that area long term, he said.
A large planting of several hundred acres of olives has been going in near Bainbridge in the far southwest of Georgia, Coolong said.
“Long term, I’m not sure how those crops will play out, but at least people are looking for alternatives,” he said.
“As an additional crop to have, it works well with onions because it goes in right after onions are harvested, you grow during the summer, and then they are out of the ground before you are planting (onions),” he said. “We have picked up sweet potato acreage with some of the growers who are trying to diversify to protect themselves,” he said.
Consolidation is a long-term trend for the state’s growers and shippers, he said.
“The number of growers — particularly melon growers — are down, but acreage for those who remain has stayed is up,” he said.
The same is true with onions.
“Back in the day there were over 100 growers,” he said. “There are far fewer (now), but acreage has remained relatively stable, and I don’t see it changing much,” he said.
Larger and more diversified operations with their own packing facilities help operators survive a bad season, he said.
Coolong sees an increasing desire by growers to rely on technology to either reduce labor or enhance quality in their operations. Some are looking at using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to scout fields.
Cliff Riner, Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center coordinator and area onion agent with the University of Georgia Extension Service in Lyons, Ga., helped set a demonstration of the Plant Tape technology, an automated transplanting system that could reduce labor needs for transplanting.
“Labor is always the biggest expense, and it doesn’t seem that (commodity) prices are going up too much,” he said. “As these input costs increase, we have to do something to maintain profitability, and technology is something they are going to embrace.”