Georgia’s agricultural industry plays a significant role in the state’s economy, contributing billions of dollars annually. Georgia consistently ranks first in the nation’s production of poultry and eggs and is also a top producer of peanuts, pecans, cotton, tobacco, blueberries, and peaches. Overall, the state accounts for 2 percent of total U.S. agricultural sales.
The food and fiber sector is very diversified and includes the production and processing of a wide range of commodities. Georgia has 9.9 million acres of land devoted to farms, with an average farm size of 235 acres. In 2017 Georgia had more than 42,000 individual farms, and the state’s farmers sold more than $9.5 billion worth of agricultural products.
The poultry and egg industry accounted for 57 percent of Georgia’s farm commodities, with three out of four counties involved in poultry and egg production. Georgia is also the nation’s top producer of peanuts and pecans. 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, and wheat, as well as ornamentals, turf grass, and other nursery and greenhouse commodities. Crops accounted for $3.2 billion in cash receipts, and livestock cash receipts totaled $6.3 billion in 2017. 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.
Statistics on Georgia’s agriculture are reported annually by the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service, which organizes data by county and commodity, and the Georgia Farm Gate Value Report. Compiled by the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, the farm gate report is drawn from information reported by Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service county agents.
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 and 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, and 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.
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 fewer 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.
Growing cotton almost exclusively proved to have ravaging effects on the soil. Agricultural leaders in the mid-1800s extolled the virtues of diversifying 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. Moreover, outdated and damaging farming practices, such as plowing furrows without respect to the land’s contour and intertilling (planting short crops beneath tall crops, which increases productivity but depletes the soil) resulted in topsoil erosion by the 1920s. 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 2018, 1,305,000 acres of cotton were harvested, with a total of 1,955,000 bales produced and cash receipts of $735,696,000. Cotton is no longer “king” in Georgia, but cotton sales still accounted for more than 23 percent of the total cash receipts for crop production in 2017.
Georgia remained an agrarian state until after World War II (1941-45). The rural population did not decrease much between 1920, when there were 2.1 million rural people and 310,000 farms, and 1960, when there were still 1.98 million rural residents. The proportion of the population living in rural areas decreased from about 85 percent in 1900 to 37 percent by 1990.
Multiple factors contributed to the decrease in Georgia’s rural population. First, the Great Depression and U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs disrupted the sharecropping system, which was a large part of Georgia’s agricultural economy at the turn of the twentieth century. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, for example, paid landowners not to plant certain crops, which decreased landowners’ need for sharecroppers and increased their ability to buy labor-saving machinery. The rural population also decreased as factories and urban centers expanded at a rapid pace during World War II, and as war veterans attended college on the GI Bill. These graduates either explored nonagricultural careers or embraced modern, industrialized agriculture with large mechanized farms.
As of 2017 only about 42,000 farms remained in Georgia, and less than 10 percent of Georgia’s citizens worked in agriculture or forestry. Slightly more than 9.9 million acres are classified as farmland, with an average farm size of 235 acres. Nearly half of all Georgia farms made less than $2,500 in 2017, while 15 percent made more than $100,000.
Although the number of farms in Georgia continues to decrease—from about 47,000 in 2007 to 42,000 in 2017—farms are growing in size. Average farm acreage in the state increased by 3 percent between 2012 and 2017.
The economic impact of the food, fiber, and related industries was estimated in 2019 at more than $73 billion. That includes $13 billion in farm gate value, or the value of the product when it leaves the farm, and about $60 billion in processing value. Agriculture supports more than 392,400 jobs in the state, and Georgia consistently ranks as the top forestry state in the nation.
Although the service sector has surpassed agriculture in number of employees since the end of the twentieth century, farm production continues to be a central part of Georgia’s economy and way of life.