Farmers, by their very nature, are very resilient and optimistic, but the last few years have culminated in one disaster after another. In 2017, we had late freezes that destroyed a very strong blueberry crop, and tornadoes tore down many of our prime pecan orchards. Then came Hurricane Irma that hit at the peak of cotton harvest. When it looked like that was as bad as things could get, low commodity prices, labor shortages, trade disputes, Hurricane Michael and finally a pandemic hit us! How do you support Georgia’s largest industry and economic driver with all the cards stacked against you?
Cooperative Extension was founded over 100 years ago by federal legislation as a mechanism to take the discoveries made at land grant universities like the University of Georgia and translate them into knowledge and practices that could be utilized all over the state to benefit farmers, families and communities. UGA Extension is doing just that. UGA Extension has Cooperative Extension programs in all of Georgia’s 159 counties, and programs vary depending on the local issues and needs. These programs have been vital to helping farmers during the pandemic.
During the first weeks of the pandemic, simple and clear information about health, safety and hygiene was our top priority. Our Extension specialists who are trained in food safety and sanitation worked quickly to develop educational materials in both English and Spanish that could be disseminated by our Extension network. Resources for the agricultural sector and workforce were sorely limited, so this was a priority. We developed a statewide newsletter that goes out each week with timely educational news, and we have started a weekly webinar that was first focused internally to UGA and is now open to the public.
In March, we saw that farmers in Florida were struggling to market their produce due to disruption in the supply chains. Because the Georgia growing season is just a few weeks behind Florida, we knew we had to act fast. UGA Extension has partnered with the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Farm Bureau, Industry and Commodity Groups and many others to utilize our grass-roots local networks to redirect the Georgia Grown fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products to hungry consumers who are happy to get them.
Using the existing Georgia Grown platform, which is a part of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, our local County Extension Agents help identify producers with agricultural products to sell, and we feed this information into the Georgia Grown System. In addition, we help the farmers by advertising their products online using our social media platforms.
Together, we can magnify the message and have tremendous impact locally. While farmers had lost much of their normal markets, local customers are happy to have fresh Georgia Grown produce available close to them. Currently, we have over 150 growers from 84 counties represented in our network. This is not how they normally market their products, but farmers are very innovative and adapt quickly.
UGA Extension offers educational materials, programs and assistance in a vast array of areas to support farmers, families and communities statewide. If you are not already a UGA Extension client, locate your local County Extension Office today and let us know what we can do to help you both during the pandemic and at any time.