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Listening session, hurrican draw Perdue back to Georgia

TIFTON, Ga. — Shortly before the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, the USDA was preparing for the potential plights of farmers and ranchers in Texas. This same resolve extended as Hurricane Irma became an unwelcome guest in Florida and across much of the Southeast’s farming areas.

But it didn’t take hurricanes to get USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former governor of Georgia, to an August listening session in Tifton at the University of Georgia Conference Center. A group of business people both in the agricultural community and in other industries gathered to be heard.

Among those present were bankers, educators, plant stock nurseries, manufacturers and multifaceted ag companies. Three major topics were discussed, including quality and reliable broadband service, labor considerations and access to financial services by new, expanding and well-established ag businesses.

Ameris Bank President Lawton Bassett raised the issues of banking and financial support for the agricultural community. The bank operates an entire department of professionals who focus on the financial needs of the agriculture industry.

His input and questions revolved around the financial challenges for new entries into the industry or even the continuation by younger members of farming families. Referring to this as the “financial barrier to entry,” he discussed the high-capital intensity to enter, or even stay, in a small farming or ranching operation.

One possible solution he floated is to develop amortization schedules with reduced payments during the startup phase.

Bassett left the session “encouraged by the exchange of ideas and Secretary Perdue’s knowledge of the challenges facing the agriculture industry. He was amazingly well informed, but more important, he was digging deeper for possible answers,” he said.

The need for quality medical services was an issue raised by Emily Watson from the Colquitt Regional Medical Center in nearby Moultrie. Her comments referenced a residency program at the regional medical center – she cited studies that show most doctors locate within 60 miles of their residency site.

A family medicine residency program now in its second year has already gained one such commitment. Elements that are stressed are the availability of internet access (broadband) and quality education. Watson encouraged Perdue to support rural medical residency programs as a means of addressing rural health care requirements.

Southern Georgia is an area of diverse agricultural activity. Lewis Taylor Farms, headquartered in nearby Valdosta, is an example of this type of operation. Started in the 1930s, today it raises a variety of row crops. It has outsourced exclusive distribution to another firm and has constructed a state-of-the-art packing facility on-site. It was among a number of producers participating in the listening session.

The educational community was represented by Tina Anderson from Wiregrass College, a state technical institution with a number of campuses across the ag region. Anderson raised the topic of providing quality and relevant education for this diverse industry.

Perdue responded in the discussions with his, and the USDA’s, views of the challenges and potential responses to the issues raised.

On Sept. 16 he was back in Georgia, visiting three cotton fields near Moultrie, armed with a map showing maximum wind speeds recorded across this area from Irma. This year’s cotton crop was projected to be bumper, but the damage will reduce it to average or slightly lower. Perdue was accompanied by Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black.