South Georgia Farmers Had to Think ‘Inside the Box’


 

The U.S. food industry has two primary supply chains: commercial and household consumption. In 2018, Americans spent $1.7 trillion on food, with 54 percent at restaurants, bars, sports venues, and other food service establishments.

Georgia Grown To-Go program provided an opportunity to showcase the state’s agricultural industry. Photo provided by Georgia Grown.

Farmers live with the never-ending question, “What’s next?” For the past three years, South Georgia farmers have endured multiple setbacks, from Hurricane Michael in 2018 ($2.5 billion in devastation to Southwest Georgia’s agricultural industry) to the continued saturation of unfairly-priced Mexican produce flooding the U.S. market.

This year, with great anticipation for a profitable spring harvest, South Georgia fruit and vegetable farmers were cautiously optimistic. However, by March, the state’s produce market was uncertain.

When the dominos began to fall in late February, the U.S. found itself in a national public health crisis due to the coronavirus (COVID-19). As the weeks passed, states began issuing shelter-at-home orders that brought the closing of schools, restaurants, bars, theme parks, and non-essential businesses.

When the pandemic escalated, there was an immediate disruption of the U.S. food supply chain.

The U.S. food industry has two primary supply chains: commercial and household consumption. In 2018, Americans spent $1.7 trillion on food, with 54 percent at restaurants, bars, sports venues, and other food service establishments.

For most U.S. produce growers, seasonal crops are distributed equally between supermarket chains and big-box retail stores. The other half is sold to food service distributors that supply fresh fruits and vegetables to schools, restaurants, and other institutional customers, all of which either closed entirely or moved to limited service due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In South Florida, the sudden decrease in the food service market left produce growers with nowhere to sell their crops. Given the highly perishable nature of most fresh fruits and vegetables, many growers were unable to switch to other marketing channels.

Some growers resorted to plowing under their fields to avoid incurring the added costs of harvesting, cooling, and packaging. To mitigate future losses, some farmers reduced the number of acres planted.

In an attempt to limp through the crisis, a few South Florida growers started selling directly to customers. According to the Census of Agriculture, direct to consumer produce sales traditionally accounts for only 3 percent of the total value of U.S. agricultural production.

 

“We were just a few weeks from the true heart of South Georgia’s fruit and vegetable season. Fortunately, we were able to learn some valuable lessons from our friends down in South Florida. As the pandemic hit, we watched their food supply chain shut down.” – Paul Thompson

Waiting Game 

Paul Thompson, marketing director for the Georgia Department of Agriculture

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to unfold, South Georgia’s fruit and vegetable growers turned their attention to Florida.

“We were just a few weeks from the true heart of South Georgia’s fruit and vegetable season,” says Paul Thompson, marketing director for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. “Fortunately, we were able to learn some valuable lessons from our friends down in South Florida. As the pandemic hit, we watched their food supply chain shut down.”

With crops still in the ground, Sam Watson, co-owner of Chill C Farms, says, “We weren’t sure what was going to happen, but we saw Florida having some success with selling the produce boxes directly to customers.”

A 500-acre farm located in Colquitt County, Chill C Farms has a 30,000-square-foot vegetable packinghouse and primarily sells to retail and wholesale accounts throughout the southeast.

“The food service industry is about half our business,” says Watson, state representative for District 172-Moultrie. “With schools and restaurants closed, we had to have someplace for the food to go.”

Chill C Farms started with just a few items, including cabbage, zucchini, and squash, and then added a variety of seasonal vegetables as they became available.

Using social media and word of mouth advertising, Watson says their customers were primarily from the local community. “We took the orders and payment online, filled the boxes, and then customers could pick them up at the farm, or we delivered them within a 20-mile radius.”

With approximately 4,000 produce boxes sold, Watson says he was pleased to see the community’s support. “We had businesses buying boxes to give to employees, while others were donating boxes to local food banks and nonprofits.”

Giving an extra boost to help South Georgia farmers, the Georgia Department of Agriculture launched its “Buy Georgia Grown, Now More Than Ever” campaign.

Using a series of pop-up markets throughout the Atlanta and North Georgia area, the Georgia Grown To-Go boxes helped bridge the gap between consumers and South Georgia growers.

The reasonably priced boxes were packed full of Georgia’s fruits and vegetables like cantaloupe, sweet corn, squash, zucchini, strawberries and blueberries.

Sam Watson, co-owner of Chill C Farms

Through an online pre-order system, customers could purchase the Georgia Grown To-Go boxes and then pick them up at the designated time and location.

“We did our best to be respectful of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines,” says Thompson. “The process was completely touch-free and allowed customers to get plenty of food without getting out of their cars.”

With thousands of produce boxes sold May through June, Thompson said the Georgia Grown To-Go program provided an opportunity to showcase Georgia’s agricultural industry. “We put a lot of variety in the boxes, and hopefully, people were able to try some food they never had before.”

While no dates or details are confirmed, Thompson says it’s “a safe bet” that the Georgia Grown To-Go markets will pop-up again during the state’s fall produce season.

 

“The food service industry is about half our business. With schools and restaurants closed, we had to have someplace for the food to go.” — Sam Watson

Delivery Adjustment 

With a few minor adjustments to its delivery method, WayGreen Inc., based in Ware County, has been able to keep its customers stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and other food products during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A nonprofit organization, WayGreen, provides accessibility to healthy food from local growers and producers to customers throughout South Georgia.

“Our vision has been to build a resilient local food system that addresses food insecurity, access, and availability while supporting a network of local providers to cultivate a healthier community,” says Connie Oliver, founder of WayGreen Inc.

Six years ago, WayGreen started as a monthly local market on the first Saturday each month. Open May through November, the markets averaged 25 to 30 vendors and 700 in attendance.

When the COVID-19 restriction disrupted the monthly local markets, WayGreen ramped up its online store.

“We’ve always had an online market but didn’t widely promote it,” says Oliver. “With the pandemic, we were forced to revisit how the online market works, and make some adjustments.”

Now serving customers through its website and local deliveries, customers can still access local food, craft, and other products that are grown or produced within a 100-mile radius of Ware County.

Customers can place their orders on the WayGreen website on Tuesday through Thursday, with delivery on Saturday at various distribution points, including Waycross, Brunswick, Blackshear, and Nashville.
“Out of a tough situation, new opportunities come, and this is one of them,” says Oliver. “We are still able to provide local fresh food, while also educating people in the community that food is available in their backyard.”

Oliver is hopeful that once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the monthly local farm market will resume with online sales. “We will continue offering an online market option along with smaller pop-up markets as we seek to become a regional hub for South Georgia.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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