Pugliese discusses agricultural impact on Bartow economy

Although Bartow has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades, the county may not be any less "country" than it was a century ago. 

"Bartow County still has about 63,000 acres of farms and 176,000 acres of forest land — that's over 80 percent of our land area," said University of Georgia Bartow County Extension Coordinator Paul Pugliese. "A lot of that crop land has shifted over to forest land now. In fact, we have more forest land in Georgia today than we did 100 years ago."

Pugliese spoke before the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce's Governmental Affairs Committee Monday morning. His presentation focused on the economic impact of agricultural industries on both the state and local level.

He said the "on-farm production" value of agricultural commodities in Bartow is about $98 million. "The economic impact of that is over $336 million, creating about 2,000 jobs," he added.

The largest local agricultural industry, he said, is poultry. The 140-plus commercial operations in the county produce about $54 million a year.

Generating about $19 million a year, Pugliese said Bartow's livestock industry is the sixth largest in the state. He tabbed the total number of cattle in the county to be about 23,000 — a sum higher than the total number of people who live within the city limits of Cartersville. 

Other big agricultural industries in Bartow include horticulture ($15 million), row crops ($6 million) and forestry ($2 million.)

"We joke that Georgia is becoming the 'wood basket of the world' now, because it's actually our no. 1 export by volume," Pugliese said. "Georgia exports more pulpwood and paper wood than any other commodity. In fact, the volume of that is more than the next three top commodities — food, plants and chemicals — combined."

Since the end of World War II the number of farms in Bartow has dropped from 2,000 to about 450. Pugliese said that downward trajectory is representative of both state and national trends over the last 70 years. "It would look almost identical in any county in the nation," he said.

Pugliese said mechanization, genetic engineering and herbicides greatly reduced the need for farm labor. But at the same time, those breakthroughs also allowed farms to produce greater quantities of crops. And despite outcry over "big agriculture" muscling farmers out of business, Pugliese noted that, today, 97 percent of all farms in the country remain family-owned and operated.

With a preferable climate, low water stress and firmly established transportation routes, Pugliese said Georgia — already the no. 1 producer in the country of poultry, peanuts, pecans, pulpwood and blueberries — could become an even greater agricultural force, domestically and internationally. 

"Georgia is in a good position, nationally and globally, to become, in a lot of ways,'the breadbasket of the future,'" he said. "We have the resources here in our state — we have water resources that are better than most parts of the nation, and globally, as well. We have good access to export markets through our ports, especially the port of Savannah. And we have the research and the support of our local, state and county governments to support our farmers in producing those crops that are needed around the world."

But he said that bright future could be imperiled by a lack of workers. With farmers rapidly aging out and retiring, that leaves huge labor force gaps across the state — and in many rural areas, those agricultural jobs simply aren't getting filled.

The big dilemma now, he said, is figuring how to get millennials and Generation Z to pursue careers in agriculture.

"It's getting to the point that a lot of these farms need to have their own IT person on staff — farmers can't even repair their own tractors," he said. "There are a lot of jobs that support the agriculture industry ... young people need to understand that if they have an interest in agriculture, it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to end up on a farm."

With computer programs running irrigation systems and farm equipment taking advantage of GPS capabilities, he said the agriculture industry must do what it can to tap into the pool of next generation science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students.

"I think we're doing a really good job of getting kids into those STEM careers but I think the missing piece, a lot of times, is making that connection with the farm. The kids see STEM careers, but very little of that is exposed to practical, applied, on-farm applications, so they don't see that as a potential career avenue," he said. "I think exposing kids at a young age to farming and agriculture, getting them outside, you can only learn so much in front of a computer screen ... a lot of the applied science, what we call 'extension,' is hands-on, you've got to get out there and experience it."

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