Published on 12/18/01

Barnes: Farms, Schools Key to Rural Economy

TIFTON - Rural communities and agriculture depend on each other, said Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes here at the Symposium on Value-added Agriculture Dec. 14.

For either to survive, he said, Georgia's government and agriculture must pursue new ideas in educating workers, investing and development. And it's critical that both survive.

"If we don't have vibrant rural communities, it will create a political and economic division (in) the state," Barnes said.

Photo:Brad Haire

Unless agriculture makes new changes, it doesn't have a bright future in Georgia, Gov. Roy Barnes told participants at the Symposium on Value-added Agriculture in Tifton, Ga.

"And if the state ever becomes substantially divided," he said, "it will not be prosperous."

Unless something is done soon, agriculture doesn't have a bright long-term future in Georgia and probably in the nation, he said. "Agriculture is the base of our rural communities."

For rural communities to be a vibrant part of the state's economic fabric, he said, agriculture has to be a part.

The economic forces of consolidation and competition are putting pressure on agriculture and the rural communities it supports. "The questions is: how do we deal with them?" Barnes said.

The bottom line, he said, is that consumers will go with the lowest prices. And as this relates to agriculture, "We have to change the focus of where we are," he said. "There's going to be increasing global competition and increased pressure on consolidations. ...

"We have to look at methods, recognizing the consolidation and competition that are going to be with us, to gain a better margin in the (farm) products," he said.

Higher Education

Rural workers will also have to be better educated, he said. Increasingly high-tech rural jobs require a better-trained work force.

Less than a generation ago, 65 percent of all jobs in Georgia required only the skills of a high school graduate. This year, 65 percent of the state's new jobs will require at least two years of postsecondary education.

"Out of every 10 children who started school this fall, if the trends remain the same, only six will be there when high school graduation comes," Barnes said.

Of those six, only three will go on to some type of postsecondary education. And of those three, only one will complete that postsecondary education.

"Vibrant rural communities require margins in agribusiness that support industry," he said. "But to get those margins, you have to have higher-skilled processing and higher-skilled jobs that require a higher-educated and better-trained worker. If the pool of trained workers is not large enough, the community is going to die."

Sufficient Support?

Photo:Brad Haire

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin (left) and R.K. Sehgal, commissioner of the Georgia Dept. of Industry, Trade and Tourism, listen to new ways farmers can add value to their crops in Georgia.

Georgia's government is willing to keep funding rural economic development, agricultural research and private-public partnerships to add value to farm products, Barnes said, "if we see that the agricultural community is serious about making some wholesale, broad changes in the way we produce."

R.K. Sehgal, commissioner of the Georgia Dept. of Industry, Trade and Tourism, said Georgia must:

* Steer toward product-oriented agriculture.

* Establish a large private-public research alliance.

* Persuade farmers to become more interdependent and less independent.

"And we need to start using the world 'value-added,'" he said, referring to going beyond traditional roles of simply growing crops and selling them.

Randy Hudson, director of the University of Georgia emerging crops and technologies program, said developing a value-added approach won't be easy.

"To attack this issue will require mobilizing agricultural leaders, lending institutions and our state and federal governments to a charge," Hudson said. "It will require a dedication to succeed with the understanding that failure is not an option."

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.