Agriculture in Georgia: Overview

Georgia's agricultural industry plays a major role in the state's economy, contributing billions of dollars annually. Georgia ranks first in the nation in the production of broilers (young chickens weighing less than two and a half pounds), peanuts, and pecans. In 2000 Georgia ranked second in acreage of cotton and rye, third in production of peaches and tomatoes, and fifth in tobacco acreage and value of production. Georgia has 11.1 million acres of land devoted to farms, with an average farm size of 222 acres and a value of $1,800 per acre. There were 3,293,000 acres of field crops harvested and 1,507,929 acres of irrigated farm land in 2000. The food and fiber sector is very diversified and includes the production and processing of a wide range of commodities.
The poultry and egg industry accounted for 45 percent of the $5.4 billion farm cash receipts in Georgia in 2000, producing more than 6 billion pounds of broilers and more than 5 billion eggs. Approximately 40 percent of the nation's peanuts and pecans were produced in Georgia. Other crops produced in Georgia include apples, berries, cabbage, corn, cotton and cottonseed, cucumbers, grapes, hay, oats, onions, peaches, rye, sorghum grain, soybeans, tobacco, tomatoes, vegetables, watermelons, wheat, and ornamentals, turf grass, and other nursery and greenhouse commodities. Crops accounted for $1.9 billion in cash receipts, livestock cash receipts totaled $661 million, and government payments reached more than $380 million in 2000. Farm production expenses totaled just over $4 billion. The export value of agricultural commodities was $965,200,000.
Beef cattle, dairy cows, and hogs are produced on farms throughout the state. Miscellaneous livestock such as meat goats and sheep, catfish, trout (aquaculture), and honeybees are also produced. The cash receipts, yields, production expenses, and other data are reported annually by the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service. Data are summarized by county and by commodity.
Another excellent source of information about Georgia's agriculture is the Georgia Farm Gate Value Report, compiled by the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development from information reported by Georgia Cooperative Extension Service county agents.

Early History

Agriculture has played a dominant role in Georgia's economy for more than two and a half centuries, beginning with the settlement by English colonists, led by General James E. Oglethorpe, in Savannah in 1733. One of the major goals of the colonists was to produce agricultural commodities for export to England. To achieve this objective, Oglethorpe sought the advice and counsel of Tomochichi, leader of the Yamacraw tribe. The Indians were skilled in hunting, fishing, and especially in the cultivation of maize (corn), beans, pumpkins, melons, and fruits of several kinds. The colonists learned agricultural practices from the Native Americans, and this collaboration was profitable from the very beginning. They produced enough corn the first year to export some 1,000 bushels to England. They also began establishing enterprises that would produce silk, indigo, and wine, which were especially in demand in England. In 1735 Queen Caroline of England wore a dress made of imported Georgia silk to celebrate her fifty-second birthday. By 1742 Georgia silk had become an important export commodity, and by 1767 almost a ton of silk was exported to England each year. Rice and indigo also became profitable crops during the early years of the colony.
The Trustees of the colony established an experimental garden of ten acres in Savannah and employed a botanist to collect seeds, drugs, and dyestuff from other countries with a similar climate to conduct research on how they could be grown in Georgia. This was the first agricultural experiment station in America, and many new crops, including cotton, were introduced. The Trustee Garden was laid out near Savannah with crosswalks bordered by rows of orange trees. The experimental plots were filled with mulberry trees and plants of many different varieties from many lands. The botanist, Hugh Anderson, reported in 1740, "There is a ten acre garden of orange, mulberry trees, vines, some olives which thrive well, and peaches, apples, etc. It must be confessed that oranges have not so universally thriven with us by reason of several blasts of frost in the spring." The mulberry trees provided a food source for silkworms. Other plants in the garden included figs, vines, pomegranates, coffee, cotton, several West Indian plants, and a plant of bamboo cane from the East Indies.

"King Cotton"

Cotton and tobacco were the major crops in Georgia after the American Revolution (1775-83), and cotton soon became the dominant commodity grown. The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 while he was visiting a friend near Savannah revolutionized the cotton industry. By 1860 there were 68,000 farms in the state, and they produced 700,000 bales of cotton. Only 3,500 farms had 500 acres or more, and 31,000 had less than 100 acres of land. After the Civil War (1861-65) cotton continued to be the main crop in many parts of Georgia. In 1870 more than 725,000 bales of cotton were produced. By then, however, erosion and depletion of the soil were taking a heavy toll on Georgia's farms. Not until the last half of the twentieth century was the damage brought under control by improved agricultural practices.
Growing cotton almost exclusively proved to have ravaging effects on the soil. Agricultural leaders in the mid-1800s extolled the virtues of diversification of Georgia's agriculture and recommended that greater emphasis be placed on livestock, poultry, orchards, vineyards, vegetables, forage, and forestry. Still, cotton was such an attractive cash crop that it dominated agriculture not only in Georgia but throughout the South for many decades. In 1915, however, the boll weevil spread into southwest Georgia, destroying thousands of acres of cotton. That pest, combined with a very low price for cotton after World War I (1917-18), made diversification imperative. Cotton production dropped from a high of more than 5 million acres and 2,769,000 bales in 1911 to only about 500,000 bales by 1923. In 2000, 1,350,000 acres of cotton were harvested, with a total of 1,663,000 bales produced and cash receipts of $411,025,000. Cotton is no longer "king" in Georgia, but cotton and cottonseed sales still account for more than 8 percent of the total cash receipts for agricultural production.

Farm Population

Georgia remained an agrarian state until after World War II (1941-45). The rural population did not decrease much from 1920, when there were 2.1 million rural people and 310,000 farms, to 1960, when there were still 1.98 million. The proportion of the population living in the rural areas decreased from about 85 percent in 1900 to 25 percent by 1990. The rapid increase in Georgia's population in urban areas accounted for much of the shift to a primarily urban society.
In 2004 there are only about 50,000 farms in Georgia, and less than 2 percent of Georgia's citizens live and work on farms. Slightly more than 11 million acres are classified as farmland, with an average farm size of 222 acres. Most of the farms (32,600) are small (average 89 acres), with less than $10,000 of sales per year, and only 7,500 farms, averaging 760 acres per farm, posted more than $100,000 in sales in 2000.

Economic Impact of the Food, Fiber, and Related Industries

The economic impact of the food, fiber, and related industries has been estimated at more than $56 billion (or about 16 percent) of the state's total economic output of nearly $353 billion. Agriculture is thus the most important sector of the economy, ranking ahead of the financial/real estate sector ($47.7 billion), and nonfood wholesale and retail sectors (just over $40 billion). Approximately one in six Georgians works in agriculture, forestry, or a related field. Agriculture contributes 15 percent of the state's employment and 12 percent of the value added in Georgia's economy.
In 2000 the food and fiber industry provided a total of $38.7 billion in economic activity to the state of Georgia. This included $8.3 billion in total farm gate value (the value of the product when it leaves the farm) and $30 billion for processing value. More than 320,000 jobs were created because of food and fiber in Georgia. Agriculture was the largest economic sector in one third of the counties and second in another third of the counties in 2000. If food wholesale/retail and food service (for example, restaurants, grocery-store chains, and their suppliers) were included, the total economic impact would be even greater.


Further Reading
David S. Abbe and Christina S. Messer, Georgia Agricultural Facts (Athens: Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service, annual).

James C. Bonner, A History of Georgia Agriculture, 1732-1860 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1964).

R. Harold Brown, The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2002).
Cite This Article
Flatt, William P. "Agriculture in Georgia: Overview." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 25 August 2015. Web. 28 August 2015.
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