Fruits and vegetables aren’t just good for health – they’re good for Georgia’s economy, too.
Vegetables alone have a farm gate value of $781 million a year in Georgia, and fruit tacks on another $400 million, says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
Even with the difficulties of finding skilled labor and the increase in food safety regulations, Georgia farmers are still producing quality crops that are being distributed all over the world.
“Vegetable farmers’ saving grace is farm management and just being good producers,” Hall says. “They’re making sure the crops they are growing are high-quality so they can have maximum productivity.”
Locally Grown, Locally Owned
Throughout all the growth and challenges Georgia’s fruit and vegetable industry has experienced, one locally owned business has facilitated the distribution of these products for the past 60 years. General Produce Inc., the largest wholesale produce house in the Southeast, has been owned by the Folds family for more than 50 years.
“We don’t only support Georgia-grown; we are Georgia-grown,” says Randy Lineberger, vice president at the company. “We’ve enjoyed being in the top 100 privately owned companies in Georgia for the last several years.”
General Produce operates on the grounds of the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park and occupies four warehouses totaling 178,000 square feet. The company distributes to smaller wholesalers in 11 states and independent retail stores within a 300-mile radius of its warehouses.
Lineberger says General Produce’s success comes from flexibility and innovation. Since 1986, it has shipped produce using its own trucking company, GenPro Trucking.
“We’re not afraid to try anything and everything,” Lineberger says. “What put us on the map was growing our fleet of trucks. It’s all about taking it to the customer. In the old days, the customer came to market, but now we take it to the customer. Our delivery has made a big difference in growth of the company.”
Complying with food safety regulations is another important part of what General Produce does, Lineberger says, but it also presents challenges – the company can only do business with farmers who also comply with the regulations.
“With all the food safety regulations, we have to be careful about how we do business and who we do business with,” Lineberger says. “When we can, we do support Georgia farmers, and we enjoy distributing their products throughout the Southeast.”
Hall says more and more producers are altering their methods to comply with regulations.
“The goal is to put in place proper agricultural practices – like worker hygiene, hand-washing and sanitation on the packing line – all to reduce the possibility of food-borne disease on the product,” he says. “Those that are selling to food service and retail have already made the necessary changes and many other growers are following suit and making sure they are ensuring the safety of product.”
Hall says the biggest challenge fruit and vegetable producers face is finding labor since Georgia passed its immigration bill in 2011.
“The consumer wants produce to be blemish-free,” Hall says. “They want to see that pretty pepper or squash that they don’t have to be concerned about, so produce has to be hand-picked. Getting the adequate number of skilled harvesters is very challenging.”
Hall says even with these challenges, he believes Georgia vegetable farmers will continue to grow some of the best produce in the nation.
“Farmers are generally the biggest innovators in the world in trying to make sure what they’re doing is latest and greatest,” Hall says.