ATLANTA - Public awareness should be the linchpin of any plan to revive Georgia's moribund farm economy, a member of a newly formed state committee made up mostly of farmers said Wednesday.
"What's killing us is a lack of understanding of where agriculture fits," said Lindsay Thomas, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, who divides his time between Atlanta and his farm in Wayne County.
"Until the average American has an understanding of the importance of agriculture to the economy and society, you're not going to do anything about environmental laws, minimum wages or anything you're talking about."
Mr. Thomas spoke during the inaugural meeting of the Land-Based Economy Assessment Committee, an offshoot of the state's Rural Development Council. The panel, headed by Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, will examine the current state of the farm economy and look for ways to improve the outlook for farmers.
The committee is due to make recommendations to the General Assembly by the end of the year but could continue meeting after the 2001 legislative session starts in January.
Besieged by foreign competition, reductions in commodity prices, tougher environmental laws and encroaching development, farming long has been on the decline in Georgia. While the number of farms rebounded slightly during the 1990s, the acreage dedicated to farming continues to fall.
Much of Wednesday's meeting was spent ticking off the list of problems facing farmers, from the rising costs of health coverage and workers' compensation insurance to the double standard allowing foreign farm products grown with virtually no environmental regulations to enter the United States while domestic farmers are told what kinds of pesticides they can use.
"I hate when I see anybody get out of farming," said Fred Harrison Jr., a Cooperative Extension agent at Fort Valley State University. "A lot of my friends are swearing this year will be their last."
Mr. Harrison suggested part of the solution could lie in incorporating the "Agriculture in the Classroom" program the Cooperative Extension now offers individual schools into the statewide elementary school curriculum.
Mr. Taylor said giving agriculture a stronger presence in the schools could spur more young people to pursue farming as a career.
But Mr. Thomas, a former congressman who served on the House Agriculture Committee, said efforts to increase public awareness must go beyond Georgia children to be effective.
Agreeing with Mr. Thomas, Statesboro farmer Jimmy Blitch said the state needs to do more to promote Georgia farm products to adult consumers.
"Until we get mothers sold on the idea that U.S. products, specifically Georgia products, are better than anything else they can get for their children, we're going to continue to have problems," he said.
James Lee Adams, a farmer from Camilla, said the state also should commit more agricultural research dollars to developing innovative crops that could be patented in Georgia.
Mr. Adams cited the possibility of injecting medicinal properties into food products. He said peanuts that could cure Hepatitis B, for example, might fetch 10 times the going market rate for nonmedicinal peanuts.
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.