Alice Rolls had worked with environmental non-profits for 30 years prior to becoming the Executive Director of Georgia Organics in 2004—a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting Georgia-produced organic food to Georgia families. At that time, there were only 25 certified organic farms in the state.
During the next ten years, Rolls and her organization inched that number up to 70 farms, but these operations still represented less than 4,000 acres. With Georgia ranking 12th in the country in terms of overall agricultural receipts, Rolls knew they could do better.
Rolls and her organization teamed up with the Georgia Department of Agriculture to remove one barrier— cost. Launched in December 2015, the goal of the 100 Organic Farms Campaign was to reach the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognized milestone of 100 Certified Farms by 2016.
The organization took advantage of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) 75% cost share program, which reimbursed organic certification up to $1,000 for farmers pursuing it for the first time. Renewing farmers could get 75 percent of their costs—up to $750—reimbursed. The Georgia Organics Board agreed to kick in the other 25 percent cost share for first-time farmers.
“We started with 75 organic farms and reached our goal of 100 in 15 months,” says Rolls, adding that the actual total represented a 45 percent increase in that time. As of this past June 1, Georgia has 119 certified organic farms.
The current goal—to grow the number of certified organic farms in the state to 200.
Promotions and incentives key
Rolls emphasizes that while reducing cost as a barrier was important, other incentives and promotions were key. The 100 Organic Farms Campaign’s kick-off took place at Grammy winning artist Zac Brown’s land in Fayette County, who was starting an organic farm at the time. Georgia’s Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black was the main speaker.
T-shirts advertising the campaign were worn at Georgia Organics’ annual conference, which attracted 1,000 attendees. Georgia Organics followed with statewide promotions, using quotes from the Commissioner and the Department of Agriculture’s publicity resources to reach beyond their base. “Using media and social media, we championed and shared stories of new farmers who went organic to inspire others,” says Rolls.
In addition, Georgia Organics has provided numerous workshops that focus on farmer perspectives on going organic, crop rotation for specialty crops and business training.
The organization also contacts farmers who fill out online interest forms—300 to date—to directly follow up. “We also sent two staff members to the intensive and costly certification training, not so that our organization could be certifying agents, but so we had that expertise in-house. This has allowed us to really sit down with farmers and walk them through the process and be a better resource for them,” explains Rolls.
Extra incentives offered to farmers once they went organic included a year-long marketing coach, scholarships to the organization’s conference, and eligibility to apply for a Tiny Farmhouse, valued at $30,000, which can be used for on-farm labor housing or agri-tourism.
Staffing to promote farmer prosperity
Increased staffing has made all this possible. When Rolls began in 2004, she became the first full-time staff member. Georgia Organics now boasts 13 additional contracted staff. “In the past year, we went from one staff member dedicated to farmer services to three full-time staff—a farmer services director, coordinator and fellow,” Rolls adds. This staffing is all part of the organization’s new strategic plan in which ‘farmer prosperity’ is the major lens.
One hurdle is that many sustainably minded farmers in Georgia choose not to go organic because they feel organic sold out to the large corporate farmer. “In many ways, I think small farmers in our movement ran away from certification when it seemed like it was just serving big farms. I think that was a mistake,” she says. “Our vision is to see Georgia’s landscape speckled with small three-acre and large 1,000-acre certified organic farms and really build momentum around a common brand that says what we believe in for the future. With organic representing less than one percent of agriculture lands, we need to stand together to push that boulder up the hill,” she says.
Receiving her certification in March, Julia Asherman of Rag & Frass Farm in Jeffersonville represents one of those newly certified small farms. “When Georgia Organics upped the reimbursement through their campaign, that peaked my interest and it was nice to have their support. I’ve been skeptical about certified organic but it made sense to make the plunge since I was doing it anyway,” says Asherman. Seeds are a small but growing area of her business. “There’s a huge need for certified organic flower seeds for cut flower production, and I have contracts now for several types of hard-to-find flower seeds,” says Asherman.
Rolls emphasizes that Georgia Organics is committed for the long haul. “We want farmers not to fizzle out in three years, but build solid businesses where certified organic serves to strengthen their brand, marketing, sales and best practices as a business,” she says.
Community vital to success
Speaking at the Organic Trade Association’s Policy Conference in May, Rolls reminded organic industry attendees how vital involvement on the community level is. “I encourage them to find a group like Georgia Organics to support and get behind. Whether its farmer education, community food access or farm to school, we are building the future eaters who might buy their products. Non-profits like Georgia Organics need resources, partnerships and connections.”
Since the meeting, Rolls has been communicating with a representative from Kashi to learn about the company’s organic transitions program and together how they can better support organic peanut production in Georgia.
“That would be a huge opportunity for the state. We will be stronger in pushing for research, seed varieties, processing and cooperative models if we have industry representatives with us who can tell the Georgia Peanut Commission and others that there is a viable opportunity for organic,” says Rolls.
Georgia Organics recently joined the Organic Trade Association (OTA) as a business associate, and became a member of OTA’s Farmers Advisory Council. This council helps foster two-way communications between organic farmers and the OTA Board of Directors, giving farmers a bigger voice on a national level through OTA’s advocacy. //
Linda Richards is a freelance writer who writes regularly for the Organic Report.