A Look at AgTech in Georgia

By Péralte Paul

March 31, 2022, 5:03pm EDT

Georgia boasts a diverse economy that includes financial technology, logistics, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare, among other sectors. But agriculture remains the state largest industry, contributing roughly $75 billion to Georgia’s total economic output of $533 billion a year.

As a leading producer and exporter of broiler chickens, cotton, timber, and pecans, the industry — which, along with forestry and related fields — employs one out of every seven Georgians, is focused on remaining competitive.

“Agriculture is not just the state’s largest industry, it’s also the oldest and to remain a viable segment of the Georgia economy, we have to look at and continually incorporate new innovations and technologies,” said Debra Lam, executive director of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation,” a public-private entity created in 2020 to lead coordinated, statewide efforts to position Georgia as the Technology Capital of the East Coast.

In late February, Lam and others across the state convened in Atlanta for two days of discussions and information sharing at the Georgia Chamber’s Future of Georgia Summit to discuss critical issues connected to workforce, supply chain and infrastructure, and energy and sustainability.

“All of these issues affect agriculture, not only from the perspective of the business of agriculture and forestry, but also from the standpoint of challenges related to the sector that we need to solve,” Lam said.

The Summit served as a conduit to bringing some of those agricultural solutions to the forefront to tackle several challenges, ranging from reducing food waste and slowing the loss of farmlands to highlighting the innovations emerging from rural Georgia and showcasing the opportunities for high-tech careers in the agribusiness space.

The Partnership, or PIN, has been at the forefront of helping to develop those solutions through its Innovate for All program, which supports a portfolio of projects that scale essential innovative programs, services, and technology deployments across the state.

One of those projects is Retaaza’s Fresh Food Forward. Founded by Kashi Sehgal, a serial entrepreneur and Casey Cox, a farmer, the company aims to make food more affordable and accessible to people in Georgia who are food insecure.

“One out of every eight Georgians are hungry, and one out of every seven kids are hungry which is astonishing, given the fact that we’re an agricultural state,” Sehgal said, estimating some 2 million tons of food from Georgia farms is wasted each year. As a Partnership for Inclusive Innovation funding recipient, the company aims to expand its operations from southeast Georgia to the southwest area of the state, as well as metro Atlanta and Savannah. Retaaza’s Fresh Food Forward also projects to reduce waste by 100,000 pounds and connect more than 200,000 tons to families fighting food insecurity.

“Coming together fosters innovation in a way that you just can’t do sitting behind your computer,” she said.

It was a sentiment echoed by Will Bentley, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

“PIN is doing a lot of great work with the different partners,” he said. “Some of the projects that PIN has funded and supported — we’ve seen those be able to connect with folks that may have other resources whether it’s access to capital, access to land, access to knowledge. That’s what this thing is really about — bringing people together that have a shared interest in making sure that agriculture is strong in our state.”

Part of that shared interest is supporting innovation ecosystems in rural parts of the state, which are driving the industry forward, said Erin Porter, an associate professor of agricultural engineering at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia.

“People don’t realize there’s so much technology happening in rural Georgia, so being able to come and have those conversations and connect the two — both the urban and rural space — helps us get out of our silos and really leverage each other’s strengths to make a more well-connected Georgia overall.” she said.

The college’s work with the Partnership is focused on building digital literacy skills programs for the next generation of farmers and those who will have careers in agriculture. That skills development curriculum is being expanded statewide through additional collaborations with the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension unit.

“The PIN program is really serving as a fantastic catalyst for our programs to really launch us into that statewide scale, Porter said.

That education component is an important factor said Glen Rains, a professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Georgia. Agriculture has an array of opportunities not just for students who have an interest farming, but also those pursuing engineering and other hard sciences degrees who might not have considered working with farmers or in forestry, Rains said.

From genetics and breeding programs to sensors and chemical compounds and biotech, innovation is part of the agricultural landscape.

“There’s a lot of opportunities and growth now,” Rains said, adding that PIN’s work allows for a network of opportunities from supporting applied research from university labs to farms, to building education programs and training to helping small scale farmers acquire land in metro areas through efforts such as The Conservation Fund.

That initiative seeks to stem the loss of farmland to development and help meet the needs of consumers who want more locally sourced food. As a leading environmental nonprofit organization, The Conservation Fund — through its Working Farm Fund program — finances small scale farmers’ land purchases and obtains easements to keep properties as farmland in perpetuity.

“We’re losing 40 acres of farmland an hour and that is largely because of development and increasing sprawl. Not only are we losing farmland at that rate, the average age of farmers in the U.S. is 58 years old,” said Stacy Funderburke, The Conservation Fund’s regional counsel and Georgia and Alabama associate state director.

“We’re growing this network of small and midsized farms that are growing our local food system. This is a program built to support next generation-farmers in the larger metro Atlanta area by getting them access to farmland, permanently protecting it and getting more sustainable and healthy practices on site and connecting them to markets inside the city of Atlanta.”

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