( File photo )

Yes, there were long-term fallouts from a freeze and a hurricane.

But equally weighing on the minds of Georgia’s fresh produce industry leaders were challenges unrelated to the weather.

From 2011 to 2018, Georgia had an increase of 16.5% vegetable farm gate value, but this percentage has been decreasing ever since, said Andre Luiz Biscaia Ribeiro da Silva, assistant professor of vegetable production at University of Georgia’s horticulture department and extension service.

The 2017-18 percentage increase was only 0.3%.

“This reduction of increase doesn’t mean the crop is being reduced by the growers. 
Contrarily, growers have been increasing their production; the cost of inputs are continually increasing. Labor, fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation are all costing more,” da Silva said. 

Georgia vegetable growers are competing with cheaper products shipped from Mexico, which are not grown under the same requirements that U.S. growers have to meet, so it reduces the price, da Silva said.

“I’d say competing with these products is the biggest problem for our growers. The food safety rules keep our products safe from field to consumer,” da Silva said.
“These rules are severe for us, but they are not as severe for growers in Mexico. We need to have it, but it increases costs for our growers.”

“We have a lot of rules that make our produce higher quality. We need the public to understand that,” da Silva said. “We’re doing it for consumer health.”

Delays in securing H-2A labor have been another obstacle, said Brandon Wade of Alma Berry Farms in Alma, Ga., who is also president of the Georgia Blueberry Growers Association.

“It’s the biggest unforeseen issue this year as a state,” Wade said. 

Each petition was under more scrutiny, “which is good,” he said, but when farmers can’t answer the phone to confirm to H-2A inspectors the person crossing the border is certified, that’s a problem.

Blueberries hit the market a little later because of these complications, Wade said, although most people are caught up by now.

President Trump’s U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, an updated North American Free Trade Agreement, may go before Congress in late summer at the earliest, with mixed reviews from the industry, according to a March 12 report in The Packer. 

The U.S. tariffs on aluminum and steel were still in place, so there is no indication of when Mexico’s retaliatory tariffs on apples and other goods will be lifted.

In 2019, Georgia will likely maintain a farm gate value for vegetables of $1.14 billion, the same as 2018, da Silva said.

“The goal for us is to increase that number, with research and meetings with growers to do more sustainable practices,” da Silva said.

“And growers have been doing it, and it’s increasing their yields. We are investigating alternative practices so the system can be more efficient.”