OPINION: Ga.’s No. 1 industry has a No. 1 need: More people

State Sen. Tyler Harper inspects his peanut crop during the harvest on his family's farm in Ocilla. He's running for state agriculture commissioner. “I love agriculture. I love the industry,” he said. “This is just another way to continue to be involved in it and give back, give back in some way to an industry that’s given me a lot of opportunities in my life. I want more people to have them, too.”
Caption
State Sen. Tyler Harper inspects his peanut crop during the harvest on his family's farm in Ocilla. He's running for state agriculture commissioner. “I love agriculture. I love the industry,” he said. “This is just another way to continue to be involved in it and give back, give back in some way to an industry that’s given me a lot of opportunities in my life. I want more people to have them, too.”

Credit: Patricia Murphy, AJC

OCILLA, Ga. — If Georgia’s agriculture industry had more Tyler Harpers, its biggest challenge — a critical shortage of people — would melt away.

Harper grew up on his family’s Ocilla farm in South Georgia, studied agricultural engineering at the University of Georgia and had his first cotton crop in the dirt by the time he was a senior in college.

Harper is one of a handful of full-time farmers in the Georgia Senate that was once dominated by them. And he’s running to become the state agriculture commissioner in 2022.

Unlike the kids who who grew up in a small town and always wanted to leave, Harper finished at UGA and moved straight home to his family’s growing farming operation.

“As a kid, anytime I got on tractors I was happy. Even my toys were tractors,” he said. “I remember growing up in our house, I’d lay them all out and the carpet became the farm.”

I went to see Harper in Ocilla as a final part of my Georgia politics road trip. You can’t write about politics without writing about the state’s No. 1 industry.

While farming in the state accounts for about $15 billion in annual output, it also throws off $60 billion of additional economic activity for related business at every link in the chain — from seed and soil research to equipment manufacturing, processing, storage, trucking and, in many cases, export through Georgia’s ports.

One out of seven jobs in the state is tied to the agriculture industry, but there’s a disconnect between metro Atlantans’ understanding of the basics of farming and its massive role in the state economy.

It’s part of what’s led to the Atlanta-and-not-Atlanta political dynamic in the state. And part of why Harper works to educate his fellow members of the General Assembly on what rural Georgia needs whenever he has a chance.

“Our No. 1 industry in Georgia is a lot of the reason we’re the No. 1 state to do business,” he said. “A lot of businesses and industries here are tied to agriculture.”

Like many farmers, Harper and his family grow a variety of crops — including peanuts, cotton, and timber — and raise cattle, in part to diversify the business and spread out the risk. A bad year for one can be saved by a good year for another.

On the day I visited, Harper was harvesting a 300-acre plot of peanuts. It was our third try to find a day dry enough to pick the peanuts up off the ground, since damp shells turn harvesting machinery into a gummy mess.

Along with the unknowns of the weather and potential natural disasters, working as a farmer in Georgia seems to be an exercise in managing market demands and juggling other unpredictables, like fuel prices, costs for seed and grain, available labor and even international tariffs.

“Any one day, a farmer in Georgia is a commodity market specialist, a veterinarian, a computer technology expert and a plant scientist, all of that before 9:30 in the morning,” Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black told me in a phone call from the campaign trail. He’s also running in 2022, but for United State Senate.

Harper’s family’s farm, where he, his parents and his brother’s family live, is larger than most, about 2,000 acres in Irwin County. The family’s trim homes, including his grandmother’s, dot the property.

About 90% of farms in the state are family-owned, he said. According to the Georgia Farm Bureau, the average farm in the state is about 230 acres.

“When you drive by a cattle farm, or a peanut field, or a corn field or a cotton field, there’s a family tied to that in some way,” he said over lunch at Hutto’s BBQ. “And more than likely it’s a family operation.”

Along with the physical demands of most farm jobs, Harper pointed to a labor shortage across the state, a lack of broadband access and a need for better access to capital as the three biggest challenges for rural Georgia.

“It’s about human capital, because we’ve got to continue to have a reliable workforce in the ag industry,” he said.

A study published in June by the state showed 500,000-plus homes and businesses without internet access. It shows huge swaths of Georgia, including Harper’s own home, with no reliable connection.

“Most of your agricultural production businesses are not located in the city, and they need to make sure that they have access to markets,” he said. “And to get access to those markets, they have internet access.”

Easier access to loans is also crucial, he said, both to begin a farming business and to recover from a bad crop or natural disaster.

When I asked Black about the three biggest issues facing farmers in Georgia, he had one.

“There’s labor, labor and labor,” he said.

Bryan Tolar, a longtime agriculture lobbyist at the state Capitol, agreed. In addition to a shortage of people to work on farms, Tolar described a chronic labor shortage in related businesses like warehousing, transportation and processing.

A strong economy in urban areas, depopulation in rural Georgia, and strict limits on immigration are combining to make simply finding workers harder than ever.

“We have terrific soils, terrific climate,” Tolar said. “If we just had people, it would be magnificent.”

For Harper, strengthening rural Georgia, including educating the next generation of agricultural workers for the state, is a big piece of why he says he wants to be the next commissioner of agriculture after Black leaves his post at the end of next year.

“I love agriculture. I love the industry,” he said, driving past rows of puffy cotton perched atop shrubs and nearly ready defoliation and then harvest.

“It’s who I am, what I am, and what I do.”

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