Bulloch County Commissioner Toby Conner, who is also a Bulloch County farmer, invited Senator Billy Hickman, Brad Vaughan, Legislative Director and Council for Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones, and T.J. Hudson, South Georgia Field Director for Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones, to Statesboro for a listening session with Bulloch farmers. The event was held Tuesday evening, October 24, 2023, at the Bulloch County Agriculture Complex.
Since the announcement of the Hyundai Meta Plant by the State of Georgia one year ago, farming in Bulloch County has become much more uncertain. One thing is clear from the meeting Tuesday night: they are very upset and concerned with the rapid changes in our county caused by this focus on industrial growth.
Farmers work under incredible stress and risk in a normal year. Now this already difficult profession is facing an entirely new set of challenges brought on by industrial growth none of them asked for or want. Increased land prices means seeing land they need desperately being purchased by out of town developers. The land owners that have not sold are having to raise their land rental prices to offset the increase in property taxes, which often makes the land unprofitable for the farmers with their tight margins.
Now they also have water concerns, with four wells planned for Bulloch to supply water the the Hyundai plant and new home and commercial construction in the southern end of Bulloch. Then there is the tight labor market, which is compounded now with the high wages and opportunities provided by new industries. Local farmers feel defeated and and that their voices and concerns are not being heard.
Commissioner Conner is working to change that by climbing higher on the political chain, providing farmers with direct access to Lieutenant Governor Jones's office. The listening session was well organized, with five speakers each addressing different areas of concern for the farmers.
Farming in Bulloch County accounts for nearly 9,000 jobs in the local economy and more than $1.3 billion in total output
Bill Tyson, Bulloch County Extension Agent, opened the session by speaking to the economic impact of agriculture in Bulloch County. Tyson explained that agriculture is the number one industry in the state of Georgia, and it is also big in Bulloch County.
Tyson provided information generated by the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development and the Feeding the Economy 2023 report.
Bulloch County is a diverse ag county; we grow many commodities.
Highlights of Bulloch County Agriculture:
- Bulloch County had $188.2 million in Farm Gate Value in 2021.
- The highest value commodity group is row and forage crops @ 36.8% of the total ag production value.
- Total economic contribution resulting from the direct and ripple effects throughout the county is $445.1 million, supporting approximately 8.8% of the county economy in terms of output (note: output essentially equivalent to sales or revenue).
The entire economic contribution of food and fiber in the county supports 2,561 jobs (includes both full and part time), accounting for 6.9% of county employment.
Bulloch County 2021 Value compared to other counties in the State of Georgia:
- Beef Cattle 1 Bulloch $17,330,400
- Citrus 3 Bulloch $1,210,000
- Rye 4 Bulloch $523,513
- Onions 4 Bulloch $10,454,400
- Cotton 5 Bulloch $35,737,496
- Peanuts 10 Bulloch $24,873,453
- Watermelons 16 Bulloch $2,827,200
- Pecans 18 Bulloch $6,699,000
- Wheat 19 $806,850
- Corn 34 Bulloch $4,573,914
Total Row and Forage Crop Value is 10 in Bulloch at $69,250,331 (mostly due to cotton and peanuts).
According to Feeding the Economy 2023 Report that uses 2021 data, which measures the economic contribution of food and agriculture industries from farm to fork (from production to wholesale to retail), the total economic contribution of the food and agriculture sectors in Bulloch County accounts for nearly 9,000 jobs in the local economy and more than $1.3 Billion in total output.
Farmers competing with industrial growth for precious farm land
Bulloch Farmer Ryne Brannen explained the battle farmers are now waging to keep farming on land many of these farmers have cared for for generations. Brannen explained that the average market value in Georgia for non irrigated farm land is $5,000 per acre, and irrigated land on good dirt can bring $10,000 an acre. Developers, many from out of the market, are swooping in and buying land for a minimum of $15,000 per acre, making it unaffordable for farmers to purchase. Brannen explained how precious and special Bulloch County soil is. A farmer can't simply move their farming operations to another community and recreate what they have here.
Now they are seeing farm land that adjoins their land being developed into subdivisions, and once dirt roads they used are now being paved. This growth provides additional safety challenges for the farmers and their massive equipment. Just getting the equipment from one field to anther has become more challenging.
Brannen pointed out that farmers in Bulloch County combined own less than 30% of the land they farm. The largest share of land being farmed in Bulloch is owned by other families who lease the land back to the farmers. Many of these land owners are having to increase rent to simply cover the taxes on the land. Most large landowners simply want the land to be cost-neutral. If it begins to cost them, that becomes a dangers place for the landowners and the farmers. This is when landowners begin to consider selling their land to developers.
Farmers represent 1% of Bulloch population -- but is the number one industry in Georgia
Bulloch Farmer Lee Cromley stressed the importance of agriculture to Bulloch and Georgia's economy. He reminded the panel that they are not resistant to change but would like a more measured plan for growth with a focus on protecting valuable Bulloch County farm land. He understands that with only 1% of the population working as farmers, they don't have a very big voting block. But even in small numbers, they have an outsized impact economically.
40% of the exports leaving the Port of Savannah are agriculture, including the three largest exports: cotton, timber, and poultry.
"It is often said that rising tide lifts all boats. For 95% of Americans, this may be true. But for farmers, when agriculture is not lifted, farmers drown," said Cromley.
Tough labor market becoming an impossible labor market
Bulloch County Farmer Will Anderson addressed the labor challenges facing farmers. They are relying on immigrant labor to staff their farms. To get help, they have to work through a cumbersome H-2A Temporary Agriculture Workers visa program. Recruiters help them locate the labor and guide them through the visa process.
It costs the farmers $5,500 per employee to get the employees to America. They are required to pay a minimum of $13.80 per hour, as well as provide housing and transportation. They speak no English, and not many farmers speak Spanish. The temporary workers can only work 10 months and have to return home for two months.
Anderson said this is not a long term solution to their labor issues. He and other farmers are baffled at Bulloch County spending taxpayers' money to buy valuable farm land to give to new industries as an incentive to locate in our community to create all of these issues, including the tightest labor market any of the farmers have ever seen.
NO to wells: Farmers say Savannah River surface water is the answer
Bulloch County Farmer Ray Davis addressed the farmers' concerns regarding the four wells planned for Bulloch County to supply the Hyundai Meta Plant. Anderson provided a map showing the proposed locations of the four Bulloch wells and the proximity of 8 irrigation wells. All 4 Hyundai wells are within 4.5 miles of each other. The four Hyundai well applications call for 6.45 million gallons per day combined. Anderson points out that the well capacity proposed is nearly 11 million gallons per day.
The 8 irrigation wells during the months of June, July, and August could pull nearly 17 million gallons per day.
They are concerned about the regulation of the wells and who will oversee and enforce the capacity restraints. They are also concerned with the State of Georgia's sovereign immunity.
Anderson and other farmers agree that surface water piped in from the Savannah River is the best option. He pointed to a recent news article showing the State of Georgia's billions in cash reserves. He pleaded with the representatives to use some of "our" taxpayer dollars they are holding to fund this pipeline and figure out solutions to their other concerns.
Bulloch County Commissioners are awaiting a report from the EPD to determine next steps in finding a water solution.
A difficult balance
Senator Hickman shared his compassion and concern for the farmers. These concerns are balanced by the constant complaints they hear that there is simply not enough opportunity to keep Bulloch County's children in Bulloch County. They are leaving for better opportunities.
On the other hand, if America becomes dependent on the world for food, we are in a scary place going forward. There are not any easy answers here, but we will keep looking for a balanced solution.
Senator Hickman agreed that workforce development is a huge issue facing every area of the state. He serves on a workforce development committee for Georgia, and in every community they meet, labor shortages and challenges are huge issues. It's a big deal for all of us, one that we haven't found the answer to but understand what a significant problem it is.
He agreed with the Savannah River surface water as a very real solution. He shared, as an example, the agreement now-Congressman Buddy Carter made when he was Mayor of Pooler to pipe water in to Pooler from the Savannah River. This agreement provided the water needs to fuel the growth we now see in Pooler.
Commissioner Toby Conner Toby Conner was elected to serve as a Bulloch County Commissioner in 2022. Conner was born and raised in Bulloch County.
He is the owner of SandCreek Farms and has been self-employed for 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.