Keeping people fed across the globe is big business in Georgia. The production of food and fiber represents $13 billion annually, and is the state’s leading manufacturing sector in terms of employment and gross state product (GSP).
With more than 42,000 farms scattered across 9.6 million acres, since the beginning of FY2021 food production has increased by 232% in job creation from the previous year.
With its rich agriculture base and abundance of natural resources, exceptional logistical infrastructure, and highly skilled and affordable workforce, South Georgia is creating the perfect spot for food and beverage industries to thrive.
“Being located in an agricultural hub provides access to resources and raw product, ultimately cutting down on time and cost for food and beverage industries,” says Jana Dyke, CEO and president of the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission (ADEDC).
When it comes to natural resources, South Georgia’s geographical location places many of its communities on top of the Florida Aquifer, one of the most productive aquifers globally.
“The abundance of water is essential to many industries,” says Andrea Schruijer, executive director of Valdosta-Lowndes County Development Authority (VLCDA) and chair of Locate South Georgia, a 19-county collaborative focused on marketing the region as globally competitive for business and industry growth. “Food processors need the availability of affordable freshwater, and this region can provide huge volumes.”
Dyke says that having the Florida Aquifer is a leading reason Albany has experienced success as a beverage production location.
Schruijer adds that along with a water surplus, the region has an exceptional logistics infrastructure that allows food processors to move products quickly and efficiently.
“To maintain a competitive advantage, food processors need efficient transportation connections to receive raw materials and access to serve global markets,” Schruijer says.
South Georgia’s transportation hub includes an extensive logistic network that provides convenient access to major population centers throughout the Southeastern U.S. via interstates (I-10 and I-75), state highways, Class 1 rail service provided by Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads.
Serving an international market is supported by the region’s proximity to the Port of Savannah, Port of Brunswick, and Port of Jacksonville.
Featuring a highly skilled and affordable workforce, South Georgia is home to three University System of Georgia institutions, including Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Albany State University, and Valdosta State University.
Regarded as a gold standard in employee training and development, Georgia’s Quick Start program is available at institutions within the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG).
Within 46 South Georgia counties, five TCSG institutions—Albany Technical College, Coastal Pines Technical College, South Georgia Technical College, Southern Regional Technical College, and Wiregrass Georgia Technical College—provide businesses and industries with customized training and economic development support.
Alma, Bacon County
During FY21, Alma and Bacon County—known as the “Blueberry Capital” of Georgia—announced La Regina Atlantica, a U.S. subsidiary of Italian producer of homemade pasta sauces La Regina di San Marzano, is investing $20 million on a new food processing facility.
The 226,000-square-foot building will be the company’s first U.S. processing location and will add approximately 250 new jobs to Bacon County’s existing food manufacturing industry, with about 440 workers.
“We could not be happier with La Regina Atlantica’s decision to locate their Italian tomato sauce production facility in our community,” says Kevin Ellis, Bacon County Development Authority executive director. “Over the past year, we have built great relationships between the La Regina family and the citizens of Bacon County. Both our local people and our Italian families have enjoyed sharing their culture and recipes with one another. This has been a great experience for everyone.”
Valdosta, Lowndes County
Coming to South Georgia is Bimbo QSR, a leading foodservice company that predominately supplies baked goods to Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) worldwide.
Expecting to create 75 new jobs, Bimbo QSR, a subsidiary of the Mexican multinational company Grupo Bimbo, is making a $25 million investment to upgrade an existing 100,000-square-foot speculative building in Lowndes County’s Westside Business Park.
Martin’s Famous Pastry was added to Lowndes County’s list of food processors in 2008. A decade later the company famous for its “potato rolls” was doubling its production capacity with a 125,000-square-foot expansion.
College classmates Chris Jones and Jack “J Ryce” Martin turned a hobby into a successful business when they started Georgia Beer Company. After years of planning, the Valdosta State University alumni renovated a century-old building into a brewery and taproom at the edge of Valdosta’s downtown district.
Utilizing locally sourced ingredients like peaches and blueberries, Georgia Beer Company produces seasonal ales, stouts, and India pale ales (IPAs) that are sold at the taproom, online, and regional retailers.
Raising a glass to success, in 2019, Lowndes County welcomed Arglass Yamamura, a joint venture between Cambium, a private merchant bank, and Nihon Yamamura, a leading Japanese glass manufacturer.
With an investment of more than $123 million, Arglass fired up its massive furnaces at the end of 2020 and started manufacturing glass containers for the food and beverage industry, primarily spirits and wines.
Sunset Farm Foods got its start in Lowndes County more than 100 years ago, when Walter W. Carroll started selling two sides of beef a week to a downtown Valdosta market. Still owned and operated by the Carroll family and now in the fourth generation, the company is known for its Sunset Farm Brand smoked sausage and its other sausage and boneless ham lines.
With more than 200 employees, the company’s products are distributed regionally and in more than 24 states. Sunset Farm Products are also available in the Caribbean, Central America, and all U.S. military commissaries around the world.
Albany, Dougherty County
Known as the “pecan capital of the world,” Dougherty County has about 17,000 acres of pecan trees, that’s about 600,000 trees.
Getting Georgia’s favorite nut to customers worldwide, Sunnyland Farms has expanded into a thriving global e-commerce business.
A family-owned business, nestled on 1,760 acres in Albany, in 2020, Sunnyland Farms was named a mid-sized Exporter of the Year by the Georgia Department of Economic Development International Trade division.
Specializing in selling gourmet nuts, candies, and confections directly to customers via its website and mail-order catalog, Sunnyland Farms also sells wholesale pecans directly to businesses.
Over at the Albany-based Mars Wrigley Confectionery plant, more than six million COMBOS® are produced each hour. The Albany plant is also sources and roasts peanuts from local shellers for the company’s popular Snickers Bar and other snacks.
For more than 40 years, Tara Foods has produced store-labeled products for Kroger grocery stores, including peanut butter, peanut oil, juices, sauces, wines and vinegars, baking and flavoring extracts, and liquid water enhancers. The Albany plant produces more than eight million pounds of each product a month.
Bringing his love of beer and family’s history of farming, Dr. Tripp Morgan opened Pretoria Fields in downtown Albany. What started as a hobby, was put on hold while he pursued a career in medicine, then in 2017, his dream of owning a brewery came to fruition.
Growing organic barley, wheat, rye, and hops, plus a variety of fruits on Georgia farmland, gives Pretoria Fields a unique advantage as a grower and brewer.
Thomasville, Thomas County
One of Thomasville’s oldest and largest industries, Flowers Foods opened its first bakery in 1919 and maintains one of the country’s most efficient and technologically advanced bakeries.
Headquartered in Thomasville, Flowers Foods operates 46 bakeries across the U.S., and is a significant producer of packaged bakery foods.
From bread to snack cakes and sweet pastries, Flowers Foods’ brands and products are household names like Wonder, Sunbeam Bread, Nature’s Own, Tastykake, Merita, and Home Pride. In FY20, Flowers Foods had sales of $4.4 billion.
“Flowers Foods set the pace,” says Shelley Zorn, president and CEO of the Thomasville Payroll Development Authority. “When you have a 100-year history of food processing, this helps your community and gives you a target market and others follow.”
And they keep coming, including a Walmart case-ready facility that is part of the company’s Angus beef supply chain. The 201,000-square-foot facility, operated by FPL foods, started with 200 employees and has jumped to 400 since its opening in early 2020.
Zorn says an additional food manufacturer is in the pipeline, with an official announcement expected later this year. The company plans to create about 200 jobs within two to three years.
Smaller food entrepreneurs, like Sweet Grass Dairy and Grassroots Coffee, are also part of Thomasville’s diverse food industry mix.
Starting as a dairy farming operation in 1993, Al and Desiree Wehner switched their farming method to an intensive grazing management style. Described as a better way to farm, where “cows could be cows” as natured intended.
After making cheese out of their family kitchen, Sweet Grass Dairy was started in 2000. A few years later, the Wehner’s daughter and son-in-law, Jessica and Jeremy Little, joined the family business. The Littles purchased the cheesemaking part of the business five years later.
To showcase their line of handcrafted cheese, the entrepreneurial couple opened Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop in the heart of Downtown Thomasville. The trendy café features a menu centered around Sweet Grass Dairy’s national and international award-winning cheese, plus sandwiches, salads, and homemade desserts.
Named a Small Business Rock Star in 2017 by the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Littles recently opened a new production facility in Thomasville. With more than 60 employees, Sweet Grass Dairy has become one the largest Southern artisan cheese brands.
“This is the best story,” says Zorn about the multi-generational business. “You have her mother and father experimenting with cheese making, and now Jessica and Jeremy have opened a new production facility and are shipping Sweet Grass cheese across the county and internationally.”
Another young entrepreneur success story is Grassroots Coffee. After opening its doors in 2009, the Downtown Thomasville coffee shop quickly became a local favorite. Within a few years of perfecting the art of coffee bean roasting, owners Spencer and Megan Young and business partner Ed Millere moved the shop’s location across the street, started serving a light food menu, and expanded its retail and wholesale coffee distribution.
Now with a thriving wholesale business, which includes a 6,000-square-foot warehouse, Grassroots Coffee can be purchased in more than 200 retail stores, restaurants, and coffee shops.
Fitzgerald, Ben Hill County
While not actually a nut but a legume, peanuts are Georgia’s top commodity, along with broilers. Grown in 76 counties, the Peach State produces about 1.64 million tons of peanuts each year.
Situated in the middle of Georgia’s “peanut belt,” Ben Hill County has multiple peanut-based processing companies, including Protein Plus, MANA (Mother Administrative Nutritive Aid), and Golden Boy Foods.
According to Jason Dunn, executive director of the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Development Authority, in the past few years, the companies have made more than $50 million in combined capital investments. Dunn also anticipates a significant announcement in 2022 that will further cement the community as one of Georgia’s premier peanut butter producers.
Fitzgerald is also home to Polar Beverages, which is seeing growth in the seltzer water market. Based in Worcester, Massachusetts, Polar Beverages Inc., is the largest independent bottling company in the U.S., comprised of multiple beverages including regular and diet flavors, seltzers and mixers.
This year, the second of two 100,000-square-foot distribution warehouses will be completed as part of an expansion project that will see Polar double its production at its Fitzgerald facility.
Donalsonville, Seminole County
In Seminole County, Georgia-based American Peanut Growers Group (APGG) recently announced an $85 million investment to expand its current shelling plant, creating 90 new jobs, and open a food processing facility on its 45-acre campus.
Headquartered in Donalsonville, and grower-owned, APGG produces approximately 200,000 tons of peanuts per year. Serving customers locally and worldwide, APGG’s customers include major confectioners, peanut butter manufacturers, and snack-nut roasters.
The 135,000-square-foot food processing operation will enable APGG to manufacture peanut paste, granules, peanut butter, and roasted peanuts for its customers.
Tifton, Tift County
In Tifton, it’s hard to miss the massive 14-foot-tall Coca-Cola bottle on display at the new Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED sales and distribution center. A focal point along I-75, the $65 million, 343,000-square-foot center officially opened in fall 2021.
With more than 200 employees, the center will distribute around 15 million cases of Coca-Cola products annually to customers throughout South Georgia and the Florida panhandle.
Founded in 1902 and headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED is the second-largest privately held Coca-Cola bottler in North America and the third largest bottler of Coca-Cola products in the United States.
From farmer’s markets and locally-owned shops to big-box grocery stores, Georgia Grown value-added products claim premium retail shelf space.
While the term value-added has multiple layers, within the agricultural sector, it represents the economic value or consumer appeal of a product by changing or transferring that product (commodity) from its original state to another.
“It’s taking a commodity, like pecans and making pecan butter,” says Linda Mahan, founder of LEM Ag & Specialty Marketing. “That pecan butter becomes a value-added product.”
Small food entrepreneurs, from jams and jellies to artisan cheese, honey, specialty oils, wines, and more, place Georgia’s products on a national and international stage,
Explaining the long journey from the kitchen table to the grocery store shelf, Mahan says, “People don’t understand the amount of hard work and actual foundation building that has to be done before they can successfully take their product to market.”
Providing that all-important marketing platform is the Georgia Grown program. Part of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Grown introduces consumers to producers, processors, suppliers, distributors, retailers, and agritourism sites.
A powerful marketing brand, Georgia Grown has gained global popularity in the past decade.
“It has exploded because there has been a platform or call to market that allowed people who might not have been able to navigate those waters previously,” says Mahan. “It came at a time when society was shifting to understand the process. Consumers want food that isn’t processed, and local businesses are offering a tastier and often healthier options.”
Mahan credits Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black with the surge in the Georgia Grown program. “When Commissioner Black was first elected, he announced the expansion of the Georgia Grown logo to include a marketing campaign through the department of agriculture that promotes local Georgia producers to consumers and through supermarket campaigns.”
The Georgia Grown program helps small to mid-size agribusiness bring their products to market. “Commissioner Black’s expanded vision has created a great marketing campaign and team that has been the basis for many Georgia Grown members beyond traditional produce to realize dreams and great profitable success,” says Mahan, who specializes in working with small and boutique agribusinesses.
More than having a great product, it takes a strong marketing strategy. “Your marketing budget is like the gas in your car,” says Mahan. “It’s the only way your product is going to go. If you don’t have gas in your car, it’s going to sit there. And, if you don’t have a marketing budget, your product is going to sit there.”
Promoting brand awareness through an extensive marketing campaign, the Georgia Grown brand signifies the product’s quality. At the same time, the logo assures consumers that the product is licensed and safely produced.
Small food and beverage entrepreneurs are part of Georgia’s robust agricultural industry, representing more than $74 billion in economic impact.
“Economic prosperity returns to the local community when these products are produced, Mahan says. “The more participation and products that come to market, the more everyone benefits and gains from the exposures.”