What began as a grassroots growers cooperative in the 1970s has become one of the Southeast’s most prestigious member-supported nonprofit farming organizations. After 25 years as a 501(c)(3), Georgia Organics continues to hold its ground in one of the country’s most agriculture-rich states, supporting organic growers and championing the local food movement.
In a region where the climate lends itself to abundant plant diseases, weeds and insect pests, organic farmers face greater challenges than those of conventional agriculture. Organic production, by its very nature, compels farmers to exhaust alternative management tools before using organically approved chemical products.
“Organic farming starts with living, healthy soil and that is the foundation of organic production,” said Alice Rolls, president and chief executive officer of Georgia Organics. “As my mother was a children’s librarian, I was always a fan of Aesop’s tortoise and hare allegory. You can go fast, or you can go slowly, thoughtfully and with purpose to build something that hopefully creates lasting change. It’s not always easy, but sustainability and resiliency won’t happen unless we take the long view.”
During the pandemic, when shutdowns exposed vulnerabilities in the nation’s food supply chain, Rolls said small and organic farmers, who were rooted in local communities, experienced an all-time high in demand during the early months of the pandemic.
“I hope that this recent experience will lead us to support a more localized food system, where consumers, schools and businesses are buying from networks of local farmers in their own community. We have tremendous buying potential within communities, so let’s keep those dollars local, eat seasonally and lift the farmers who are building soil and public and environmental health,” she said.
With its roots in farmer education and networking, Georgia Organics’ annual conference has been at the core of the organization’s history and mission, centered on farmer prosperity, environmental stewardship, climate change and racial equity.
Having just wrapped up its 25th annual conference in Perry, Georgia, the organization continues its longstanding partnership with the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Cooperative Extension.
UGA Associate Professor and Extension Plant Pathologist Elizabeth Little, who presented at this year’s conference, is on the organization’s board of directors. Little, who describes organic production as a labor-intensive, complex process of problem-solving, has worked one-on-one with organic growers to help prevent disease by utilizing better production practices. “Disease management is especially challenging because there aren’t any organic fungicides that work well, there is no silver bullet. I help farmers with growing techniques to prevent disease formation in the first place,” she said.
Despite its inherent challenges, organic production in Georgia is expanding but most likely underreported through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. While many farmers adhere to organic growing practices, they face challenges in the organic certification process, which can be cumbersome to acquire for new farmers due to extensive required paperwork and a high application fee. Georgia Organics endeavors to help farmers overcome these obstacles through their Farmer Services program, which provides financial and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers transitioning to organic.
Being counted as an official organic farm is important so that legislators see the value of organic production in the state, Little explained, because most research initiatives in CAES are predicated on the needs of Georgia farmers. “One of the best ways to garner more support is to connect with county Extension agents. As the literal extension of the university, they can advocate for additional support from researchers and leadership to better meet the needs of the organic producers in their counties.”
At the county level, UGA Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) agents are a unique asset to the organic farming community, providing free, science-based educational resources and services to directly support growers throughout the state.
Beyond the services Extension provides to conventional producers, Clarke County ANR agent Laura Ney works directly with organic growers, carrying out on-farm research trials, connecting them with specialists and helping them find funding to help grow their businesses. In partnership with neighboring ANR agents from Barrow and Oglethorpe counties, Ney helped start the Athens-Area Sustainable Growers Network, which provides hands-on learning opportunities focusing on practical applications and creating networking opportunities for sustainable growers to support each other.
“The good thing about the organic farming community is they are so tight-knit,” said Newton County ANR agent Ashley Best, who hosted an organic farmer field day last month at UGA's Durham Horticulture Farm. Several CAES faculty members gave hands-on demonstrations on soil fertility, greenhouse production, field cultivation and food safety. “I got connected with the Farmer Services program at this year’s Georgia Organics conference and asked for help advertising the field day. Through word of mouth, growers shared the information, and we had a great turnout of experienced organic farmers from around Georgia looking for more in-depth, technical growing information.”
When thinking about the future of organic production in Georgia, Rolls said continued partnerships and leadership initiatives like these will help accelerate the local and organic food movement.
“Finally, we need major shifts in public policy,” Rolls said. “Feeding our country and communities fresh, healthy food from local farmers should be at the center of our biggest food and farm legislation. That can work in tandem with proactive strategies to build soil health to draw down carbon. It’s complex and challenging, but the local and organic food movement's dramatic growth and public support over the last 25 years should give us hope that positive change is indeed possible.”
Learn more about the team of CAES researchers working in organics at extension.uga.edu/organic/team.