“On average, a crop yields about 70% of what is considered perfect, meaning no blemishes or spots, and sold to supermarkets. The remainder is discarded.”
— Barbara Grogan, executive director of Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority.
Often recognized for its robust agricultural prominence, Colquitt County spans more than 356,000 acres, with almost half focused on commodity production, including fruits and nuts, row and forage crops, and vegetables.
Colquitt County claims the state’s No.1 agricultural spot, generating about $458 million in annual farm gate value and $1.3 billion in economic impact.
Representing a solid farming community with approximately 500 farms employing more than 6,000 people, Colquitt County is also home to National Beef and Sanderson Farm, with a combined workforce of more than 2,000.
As COVID-19 emerged, it brought significant changes to almost all U.S. industries, including food processing. As a result, in 2020, overall food spending dropped to $1.69 trillion, down from $1.79 trillion the previous year.
The loss was not equally distributed. Food purchased away from home in restaurants, schools, and other food establishments dropped by $164.8 billion. While food bought from supermarkets and big-box stores increased by $68 billion.
For most U.S. produce growers, seasonal crops are distributed equally between supermarkets and big-box retail stores. The other half is sold to foodservice 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 during the height of the pandemic.
The sudden decrease in the food service market left produce growers with limited options to sell their crops. In addition, given the highly perishable nature of most fresh fruits and vegetables, many growers, including those in Colquitt County, could not switch to other marketing channels.
In an attempt to limp through the crisis, some growers started selling directly to consumers; however, it wasn’t enough to compensate for the significant decrease in the foodservice distribution market.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about a third of fruits and vegetables raised on commercial farms go unsold—amounting to approximately $161 billion in yearly waste.
“We’ve known this was an issue before COVID, but the pandemic exacerbated the situation,” says Barbara Grogan, executive director of Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority. “On average, a crop yields about 70% of what is considered perfect, meaning no blemishes or spots, and sold to supermarkets. The remainder is discarded.”
While aesthetics are essential for fruits and vegetables sold on the grocery store aisle, Grogan says, “If it’s not perfect enough to be on the fresh vegetable aisle, it can be chopped and frozen.”
After enlisting assistance from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the development authority is moving forward in establishing a food processing facility for chopping, canning, and flash freezing regionally grown vegetables.
“We started last year talking to our larger farmers; the ones we knew had to commit enough volume for this to work,” says Grogan. “Plans include any farmer that grows to industry standards. They have to be able to guarantee the quality of food.”
Constructed at the Citizens Business Park, on land the development authority owns, the Colquitt County Agricultural Processing Facility is an estimated $90 million project, including $50 million for building and $40 million in equipment costs.
Grogan says there are multiple funding layers, including financial support from the development authority and the Colquitt County Board of Commissioners, plus state and federal grants.
“It’s a long process, but we are going to keep working toward it,” she says. “This has been a missed financial opportunity for our farmers. The processing facility will give growers in the region a new venue to sell their produce.”