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photo/Reyna Riddle An enthusiastic Tyler Harper, Georgia’s newest and possibly youngest agriculture commissioner in the department’s history, shared his desire to educate and recruit a new generation of farmers as the average age is 58 and getting older.

”Y’all keep plowing,” Ag Commissioner encourages farmers at stop in Jasper

Pastured Poultry Farmers Raise Concerns about Processing Limits

By Jennifer Paire, Contributing Writer

            Georgia’s new Agriculture Commissioner stopped in Jasper Saturday evening to speak to a full house of farmers and growers at 61 Main restaurant in Jasper.

            Tyler Harper, who ran successfully for the commissioner slot last year, was a state senator for the 7th district for a decade prior. A seventh generation farmer from Ocilla, Ga., he shared his commitment to developing younger crops of farmers, making family farms more profitable and improving access to capital.

            “Investing in the next generation is vitally important and I’m not just talking about investing in new technology,” said Harper, whose farm produces peanuts, cotton, timber and beef cattle. “In Georgia, we’ve started down a path of doing that and I’m proud of what we’ve done. Just this past year we passed legislation that created permanent agriculture education opportunities in the K-5 classroom.”

            The dinner was hosted by Jasper’s NexGen Farming Institute, a nonprofit created by Lee and Reyna Riddle, regenerative hog farmers at Riddle Family Farms in Jasper.  NexGen supports beginning farmers – with an emphasis on veterans and women – by teaching regenerative, high-tech, profitable and health-focused farming techniques, methods and processes.

            “In the last 20 years the retail dollar to the family farm has declined by 20 percent, and that’s a trajectory we don’t need to be going down,” said Harper. “If we continue to go down that path we start losing operations. We start losing family farms, we start losing generational farms like mine and we’ve got to find a way to bridge that farm-to-fork gap so we can ensure more of that dollar gets back to the family farm.”

            About 50 farmers from Pickens and surrounding counties listened intently as Harper spoke, including several who supply food to 61 Main. A few farmers spoke about their biggest obstacles and Harper stayed long enough to hear them.

            “I think the attendees are looking forward to his response and if he will help us address some of the issues that were brought up like the 1,000-chicken restriction,” said Lee Riddle. “We’ve heard a lot about small farmers’ desires to stay clear of the government. We feel that this is a great opportunity to empower the voice of the small farmer as people have become more focused after the pandemic and the impact it has had to our food supply chain.”

            The 1,000-chicken restriction refers to Georgia law that  limits processing options for those who produce less than 1,000 birds each year. While these farmers are able to get a permit to process their chickens onsite they can only produce half and whole chickens. Those who process between 1,000 and 20,000 are required to take their birds to federally inspected poultry facilities and further processing is available for cuts most popular among consumers. The closest facilities are located in Loganville, Tennessee and South Carolina.

            “The biggest obstacle for small, regenerative pastured poultry farmers is the restriction that we have here in the state of Georgia,” said Jasper’s Turner Griffin of Short & Tall Farms, beef, pork and chicken producer in Pickens and surrounding counties. “I always take my birds to a USDA-approved facility because the equipment and overhead to process 1,000 birds myself is not worth the cost. The processor in Loganville is pretty expensive and that cuts into your profitability. You just hope you don’t have any issues with your birds or the transportation.”

            Selling half or whole chickens creates its own set of challenges.

            “It’s a real big inconvenience in that you really narrow your market down with people not wanting to bust chickens up,” said Griffin, who added he’s willing to sacrifice the money to travel for processing so he doesn’t sacrifice time with his family. “I would love to see the state of Georgia lift the 1,000-bird limit because it’s just not enough.”

            Ideally Griffin is among growers who would like to see more processing facilities across the state.

            Commissioner Harper heard Griffin’s concerns and while he did not want to comment on the limit, he invited Griffin and Riddle to come to Atlanta to discuss that and other farming concerns.

            Other issues Harper is working on this legislative session:

            A bipartisan Georgia bill that would give farmers the option to sell all or some of their property’s development rights to a land trust, or similar option, to hold conservation easements permanently, “a way we can protect farmland in our state to ensure that it continues to be viable agricultural production land here in Georgia.

            Legislation regarding foreign ownership of land in Georgia: “We’re ensuring that the land that we own here at home can only be owned by Americans and can only be owned by those that are not adversarial to the United States.”

            “Agriculture is national security here,” Harper said. “If we’re not producing our food and fabric and shelter right here at home we’re less safe as a state, as a community, as a nation and it is incumbent on us as a nation … that we’re protecting our farmers and producers.”

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