When Chuck Leavell says you rock, it means something.
Leavell, a Georgia tree farmer, renowned environmentalist and keyboard player for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Montgomery Gentry, told a packed house at the Georgia Freight Depot in downtown Atlanta that: “Georgia agriculture rocks!” The roar from the crowd of more than 1,000 agriculture supporters, legislators and educators signaled agreement.
Leavell was on hand March 16 for the 7th annual Georgia Agriculture Day, the traditional kick-off of Georgia Agriculture Awareness Week which runs March 15-19. During the event, Leavell and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue recognized the regional winners of the Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award given annually to farmers who do an exceptional job protecting their land and promoting environmental practices in agriculture.
This year’s state winner was Gully Branch Tree Farm in Bleckley County operated by Earl and Wanda Barrs.
Earl Barrs’ family first settled the land that became Gully Branch Farm in the 1870s, share-cropping and raising their family there. “In the ‘30s, the family had the chance to buy the land for nine bales of cotton. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the cotton to buy it,” said Ken Morrow, a member of the Governor’s Agriculture Advisory Committee. “The land remained in crop production until it was bought in the ‘50s by a timber company and managed exclusively for timber.”
In the mid-80s, Barrs and his wife, Wanda, bought back 400-plus acres of the land. Now 1,500 acres, the farm is managed for trees, wildlife, education and recreation. Barrs, his wife, his parents and children plowed, planted, cleared food plots, sprayed, burned and harvested the land’s bounty, transforming it into the American Forest Foundation’s 2009 National Tree Farm of the Year.
“Conservation is of extreme importance at Gully Branch,” Morrow said. “The timber is managed with selective harvesting, paying special attention to soil and water conservation and wildlife habitats. Streamside management zones are left along streams and dedicated wetlands.”
Roads, logging trails and firebreaks are designed to follow the land’s contours to prevent soil erosion. Strict adherence to best management practices is the norm.
“Gully Branch is a nationally-recognized outdoor education center, too, not just a timber farm,” he said. “More than 7,000 students and adults have been guests on the farm, learning about Georgia’s environment and conservation and sustainable farming practices, something Earl says he wants to build upon and grow.”
In his comments to the crowd, Leavell, who has written several books on the environment, said, “The most important thing we can do is be good stewards of the land and pass that practice forward to our children and grandchildren.”
Other regional winners included Clayton McKinnon, Coffee County; Jamie Jordan, Riverbend Farms in Floyd County; Keith Nichols, Oak Valley Farm in Stephens County; and Stanley Corbett, Echols County.
Television celebrity chefs Jamie and Bobby Deen presented awards to the winners of the 2010 Flavor of Georgia Contest. The annual program of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences helps local entrepreneurs get food products made from Georgia commodities to market. Savannah Bee Company won top honors this year for their Grill Honey, designed specifically to use on grilled foods.
Agriculture Awareness Week shines a spotlight on the state’s largest industry, which provides jobs for one in six Georgians and boasts annual sales of more than $92 billion.
“This week we celebrate agriculture and our farmers,” Gov. Perdue said. “Not only are they outstanding farmers, but outstanding stewards and protectors of our land.”