2015-03-25 / Front Page

CALIFORNIA DROUGHT OPENS MARKET FOR GEORGIA FARMERS

By Elizabeth Billips

California’s water woes could have a positive trickle-down effect on Georgia agriculture.

As the drought drags on, gaps are widening in the nation’s supply of fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts.

But American consumers are not doing without … they are simply doing something else.

“It creates the substitution effect,” said Dr. Greg Fonsah, a University of Georgia extension economist and professor who specializes in fruits and vegetables. “If one of the crops that California produces is not available, consumers will go to the closest substitute.”

That means Georgia pecans may be filling in for California almonds. And Georgia tomatoes, peppers and onions could take up the slack for the Golden State’s failing artichokes, broccoli and celery.

“California is the largest producer of most of our (fruit and vegetable) crops,” Dr. Fonsah said. “The drought is creating a natural shortage and making prices go up.”

While that’s good news for Georgia’s truck farmers, it could also be a boon for businesses like Fisheads, an aquaponic farm in Sardis that is producing a dozen varieties of lettuce in a 3,500 square foot solar designed greenhouse.

This kind of farming, Dr. Fonsah believes, is around to stay.

“We are seeing this movement away from the field and into the greenhouse,” he said, citing the benefits of being unbound from the traditional growing season. “The folks growing lettuce in your town will have an advantage in the market because of their quality and double yields.”

While Fisheads owners Doug and Lisa Dojan haven’t felt the impact yet, they can see it on the horizon.

“If the last drought taught us anything it’s that it can have a significant impact around the country … and very quickly,” Doug said as he scheduled flats for the Farm to School program that puts his lettuce in the salad bowls of students at Burke County Public Schools.

The Dojans are already tapping a strong network of niche markets – like a trial run of cilantro for a salsa company in Jenkins County and their steady supply of specialty lettuces for chefs in Augusta and Statesboro.

But now, they are feeling a nudge toward wholesale distribution and are pushing toward plans for nine more greenhouses.

With the bigger yields, they can confidently broach bigger markets.

“Right now, we are selling everything we produce,” Doug said, describing the mixture of excitement and hesitancy that accompanies interest from wholesale markets and two other school systems. “The drought has definitely made us more diligent about getting the (expansion) process in place faster … if we produced more, we could sell more.”

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