Organic agriculture has been growing exponentially throughout the US and the southeast has been no exception. While the southeast has a very challenging climate for organic production, the number of organic farms has been steadily increasing. And this is especially true in Georgia… And the catalyst for this growth has been Georgia Organics.
Georgia Organics has been the primary engine fueling the advancement of organic agriculture in Georgia. For over twenty years, GO has been working with farmers to move towards more sustainable practices. As the organization has matured, GO has expanded its work to include not only organic production but farm to school, local food system development and farmer prosperity.
Georgia Organics, with the input of some prominent Black farmers and Black stakeholders, created a Black farmer prosperity track at this years GO annual conference. The goal of this track is to focus on issues and practices that lead to increasing the financial viability of Black farmers. As more farmers become interested in crops such as hemp, environmental stewardship of our lands is very important. And the educational opportunities that GO is working to provide our Black farmers is very important
Georgia Organics Website
Georgia Organics Website
Brennan Washington: Welcome to the Sustainable AG Rider podcast, a podcast bringing you news and views about sustainable agriculture from across the southeastern United States. Every show will feature insightful interviews and deep dives into sustainable agriculture topics with farmers, ranchers, land grant universities and local food system advocates. Now here’s your host, Brennan Washington.
Brennan Washington: Good morning. Good morning. Good morning. Hope everybody’s well out there in Sustainable AG World This is Brennan Washington.
Brennan Washington: And I’m the sustainable ag rider sitting here on another rainy Georgia Monday. Well, actually, it’s Friday. I think at any rate, at raining again, we me and my wife are about to head down to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to attend one of Frank Taylor’s Saving Rural America conferences. So we’re looking forward. We’ll hopping in the car in just a little while. And if you remember from the last episode, I said I think I jacked my shoulder up doing some farm work. But it’s so it’s official. I tore my rotator cuff and I’m going to have a MRI on next week to just confirm that. And they’re saying it looks like surgery. So we’ll just have to deal with that. I’ve actually been pretty fortunate in all the years we’ve been farming here, except for your minor cuts and bruises haven’t had any serious injuries. So. Well, we ran against the averages for a long time. We try to be careful when we farm here and. But things happen. So today we’re going to be talking with Alice Rolls, who’s executive director of Georgia Organics. And we’re going to be talking about the work that their organization does in the state of Georgia to promote organic agriculture. And I was going to open a segment just with the overall general discussion about organic agriculture, its pros, its cons. You know, it’s always interesting. I often hear a lot of people slam organic agriculture for a number of reasons. But a lot of times I hear a gimmick and it’s just a bunch of farmers looking to extort money out of people.
Brennan Washington: And it’s really interesting that when you hear about romaine lettuce being contaminated with E. coli high or E. coli in ground beef, that needs to be recalled. You never hear these same folks talking about how, you know, conventional ag is a gimmick and and they’re out to hurt people in that type of stuff. I always find that juxtaposition interesting on how one production method can be held to standards, that the other one isn’t. And the other one’s much larger. But anyway, I was going to start this show this part or to show off with a conversation like I usually do in some discussion about the topic in general. But then something happened. Georgia Organics, we had the honor of hosting Georgia Organics yesterday and their board meeting here at a farm and they try and have their board meetings at farmers farms and they asked us to host. So we did. And they came over. We gave them a farm tour and Gwendolyn made lunch for them and they had a meeting over at our local extension office. But before they came over, I got an email from them about a new program that they’re they’re opening up called the Accelerator Program. Now, I’m a big fan and a big proponent of farmer training programs, be they apprenticeships, mentoring programs, new one beginning farmer training programs.
Brennan Washington: I believe fervently that these activities are needed. And it’s been interesting to watch the development and the evolution of these programs and how they’re getting more sophisticated and really addressing some of the weaknesses we had in a farmer training program, such as the use of stipends, the lack of funding to help farmers pay for at least some basic infrastructure.
Brennan Washington: And a lot of the new farmer training programs are addressing these issues within the structure of their programs. The big issue always of is always, of course, access to land and land access. And there are some good groups across the country working on that issue. But a lot of the new farm programs and new training programs are addressing just a lot of these other needs that farmers have. So Georgia Organics sent me this email well sent out an email talking about what they’re calling their accelerator program. And it’s through their the arm of the organization called the Farmer Fund. Now, we’re intimately acquainted with the Farm Fund. It was started to assist farmers who suffered some sort of short term disaster related setback. So when we had our fire back in fifteen, the Farmer Fund helped us out with some funding to help get us along back to the road to recovery. And we were really appreciative of that. I know they’ve helped farmers who’ve been beset by storms, even farmers say, in urban areas who’ve had their equipment or either damaged or stolen. They’ve been there to step up. So Georgia Organics is running this accelerator program through their farmer fund. And Georgia Organics has been on a mission to really help farmers prosper. And they’ve taken a strong interest in what makes a farmer prosperous and are starting to look at some things that really take a look at how we can make farmers more viable and financially viable over the long term. And this accelerator program is one more step to the them, taking that farmer prosperity to a new level. So let’s talk about what this program is going to do. Now, unfortunately, this is only for farmers who are located in the state of Georgia. But I would encourage people and other steps states to take a look at what they’re doing. And maybe it’s something you can impro either your organization to take a look at doing in your state or your area, or if you’re a farmer, you can approach a nonprofit group or a land grant university to see if you could sort of copy this into your area. But to Georgia Organics Farmer fund accelerator will combine tailored on farm investments with a customized coaching program to help selected farmers grow into a more financially sustainable operation more quickly than usual. The accelerator will provide selected farmers with business and financial consultants, marketing and sales experts, loan and leasing coaches and production coaches, combined with up to ten thousand dollars in support, per farm in the form of paid apprentices, marketing materials, infrastructure and equipment investments and health insurance premium cost shares. So that’s a lot of support for a farmer to really start to get his business established. I really like the health insurance part of it. You know, I’m fortunate in that I do have health insurance and it’s pretty good health insurance through my all. Far more on someone of farming full time. A lot of times, folks, that farming without that safety net of having health insurance, a lot of farmers are if they’re just starting, their incomes are so low that they qualify for Medicaid. But even Medicaid is under attack right now. So that safety net may not be there in the future. So I like the fact that so Georgia Organics is addressing health insurance as part of their whole farmer prosperity model. And they’ve been doing that type of work for some time.
Brennan Washington: I also like the financial support for both apprenticeships, to pay apprentices and for infrastructure and equipment. Labor is probably the biggest challenge and the biggest costs sink for farmers. Many farmers have volunteers that use family labor but when they’re trying to scale and ramp up. The cost to labor plays a significant role in whether that farm becomes financially viable. So it’s good that Georgia Organics is providing this funding to bring in labor that that farmer can use and also infrastructure and equipment investments. Most USDA programs in fact all of them. With the exception of the FSA.
Brennan Washington: Loan programs do not allow farmers to make any sort of equipment purchases of capital investments or construction costs. Anything that could be shown as a capital investment on in your accounting system is generally not an allowable course in most USDA programs. So it’s nice to see programs like this step up to the plate and say we can at least try and help the farmer with some small infrastructure investments. There’s another program in the city of Atlanta called Foodwell Alliance that has really done some outstanding work around providing funding for farmers to do to make some fairly significant, in some cases, infrastructure investments. We’ve been blessed in that they’ve provided us with close to seventy five thousand dollars over the last four years to do some work around a farm. We used it to implement the first phase of our permaculture installation after our fire. We are using it to leverage it with NRCS funding to put up some more hoop houses. So that type of investment really makes a big difference to a small farmer. And I’m really appreciative to organizations that are noticing that need and stepping up to the plate and making that funding available. So going back to the accelerator program, accelerator program is free for selected Georgia Organics members and last one year and new Georgia Organics membership is not very expensive. If you’re not a member, I think it’s 50 or 60 bucks and it gets you discounts on many things such as admission into workshops. You can get scholarships to their annual conference, which is going to be happening next week. And just a lot of good stuff. And all in all, you’re supporting an organization that’s trying to support farmers.
Brennan Washington: The application is free. It’s free to apply for it, but it’s slightly more complex than, say, an application for one of their conference scholarships.
Brennan Washington: And that’s because they will need more information than usual to make sure your operation is a good fit for the goals of this program and to make sure that they pair you with the right coach on the right topic. If farmers have a preferred coach other than the ones being provided, Georgia Organics will default to the coach of the farmer’s choice.
Brennan Washington: And you know, your selection of a coach or the selection of a coach or a mentor is extremely important. Not only do you need to gel in terms of what you’re trying to accomplish on your farm and what skill sets that mentor or coach can bring to that situation. But you have to mesh personality wise as well. That’s important if you’re not getting along and just says as two people, it’s not going to work. And I used to say, you know, a mentorship is not basically slapping two people together and watching them hold hands as they skip through the cornfields. You know, and a lot of times that’s the way mentorships were viewed as you just put two people together and everything’s going to be hunky dory. But that’s not not the case. Trust me.
So it looks like they’re taking a more aggressive approach to a vetting applicants for the program and B, making sure that the coach and participant personalities and those connections are actually solid as you go into the program. They’re calling this an accelerator program because it’s only one year so that the goal behind this, it’s taken existing farmers and really give that farmer what they need to ramp up their operation to become financially viable. Over the course of a year, at least 50 percent of the members will be will come from historically disenfranchised communities. So communities of color and that type of stuff, at least half of the applicant pool will be at least half of the people selected will be from those communities.
And it goes on to talk about what Georgia Organics is going to give. That’s a business accounting, taxes and financial services, branding, marketing and sales assistance, legal practitioners to help with loans and leases, organic certification. You know, at the end of the day, or get Georgia Organics wants to see more organic farms in the state of Georgia. And I think when they started, there were, I want to say 20 or 30. And now they’ve risen at number to close to 200. So they want to see more organic farms in the the state, food safety. They’re going to be training farmers and offering technical resources to make sure that farms are in compliance with all the food safety laws and then accelerate investments five hundreds up to nine thousand six hundred fifty dollars, which will go toward apprenticing marketing materials, health costs, insurance cost shares on farm infrastructure and equipment and conference scholarships to their annual conference, which is a great education. And they’re going to ask a few things that you complete an application that you complete, the USDA NIFA Farm and Ranch Health Assessment Survey, you commit to spending the infrastructure funds only as outlined in the accelerator plan. You complete surveys on your experience and you sign a memorandum of understanding committing to the above requirement.
Brennan Washington: So I want to highlight this because these type of programs and I’m glad they are coming online when I get down to Mississippi. I know Frank is just starting a new beginning farmer training program down in the state. And I’m going to be talking to him a little bit more about what they’re actually doing with that program. But it’s great to see these programs coming online. And those of us who are working in this space, as these programs are developing new and beginning farmers and especially younger farmers, that we there are those of us in a space we’re looking at and addressing the issue about access to land. So stay tuned for my interview with Alice Rolls peace out.
Brennan Washington: So we’re about to listen to our interview with Alice Rose and I made a classic rookie mistake, ya’ll. We were about three minutes into the interview when I realized I had to click the record button.
Brennan Washington: So we’re going to pick up the interview, right when Alice starts to speak about her conference. Your conference is coming up, and one of the things I’d like your opinion on is as these really strong statewide conferences have arisen to work around sustainable and organic agriculture. How do you see your relationship vis-a-vis organizations like Southern SAWG which takes a more regional approach?
Alice Rolls: Yeah. I think that Southern song plays an important role in convening leaders and technical experts from a wider area.
Alice Rolls: And one of the weaknesses that I feel that we have in the sustainable agriculture and good food movement is there’s fairly poor cross collaboration certainly on the advocacy and sharing best practices at the national level.
Alice Rolls: And so you’re gonna get a little something different when you go to Southern SAWG, because there’s gonna be people there from throughout the region with different perspectives, different experiences, different best practices that we need to be sharing with each other. And there is no national group. And, you know, I wish there was a national group that then, you know, we would bubble up from the states to the regions to the national level. The only two groups that we align with are the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Organic Trade Association based in D.C., which is more policy focused.
Alice Rolls: And we’re so glad that they’re there because they monitor the farm bill and we support their efforts. But the fact that my peers around the country that we don’t know each other is a real disservice to the acceleration of this movement. So and the other I think from a regional standpoint, from the south, is that we need good research happening.
Alice Rolls: So that’s where Southern SAWG. If that can’t happen at the state level, then we certainly get people coming from other states to the Georgia Organics conference. But we’re going to that’s just gonna be stronger at a regional component. So anything that builds that collaboration I think is is definitely needed. And I I hope the southern SAWG will continue to grow and thrive in that capacity.
Brennan Washington: You know, even the conferences that purport to be national. So, for example, we had the National Outreach Conference on Outreach in Agriculture in Virginia back in September, and it was billed as a national conference.
Brennan Washington: But during the planning process, you know, you could see was mainly skewed towards the southern region. I don’t know if that’s because it was being held here. You know, we only had a few people, you know, who were really from other areas. I think it was one person on the West Coast was mainly southern. And it is just something different when you get real. Actually, not only get talked up, get to interact with farmers from other states in the southern region, but also farmers outside of the region, because there was a lot of things going on that we’re going to talk about, put a lot of things going on that affect farmers no matter where you are.
Alice Rolls: You know, and it’s those type is, yeah, there used to be a conference and I’m going to date myself here. I’ve been working in this movement for 16 years.
Alice Rolls: There used to be a group called the Community Food Security Coalition and they convened an annual conference. It skewed a bit more to the community food side of our work. So maybe there weren’t quite as many farmers present at that conference, but there was good sharing that happened and that organization folded for probably just organizational capacity reasons or resource reasons. And, you know and I used to go to that and that was a great conference, too, where I did see some of my peers. So I do hope that we can do it. Just reminds you that our movement is still relatively young.
Alice Rolls: You know, in many ways, even though people have been farming organic before forever, it’s some in terms of a shifting this food system from the global mindset, in the commodity mindset to more of a community mindset, that movement is still fairly young.
Brennan Washington: So Alice was I’ve known you for quite some time, but I don’t I’ve never known how you got to become involved in this type of work. So before we talk of actually talk about GO. Tell me a bit about a little how you walk the path to get to into work or.
Alice Rolls: My path was really literally through the woods. I was very, very fortunate. I grew up in suburban D.C. and had two working parents and I was a latchkey kid. And we were very fortunate to have some woods behind our house. And there was a tributary to the Potomac River. And I spent a lot of time there and grew my appreciation for nature, environment, the connectivity of everything in the web of life and that we all live downstream. And because of that formative experience that I had, I was always very passionate about environmental issues. And so I really come at you know, this food work more from the environmental side. And it’s interesting because all the staff here at Georgia Organics come with a different lens.
Alice Rolls: And actually there’s probably only a few of us that come with it. The more the stronger environmental lens. Not that everybody doesn’t care about that. But others come with an equity lens or they come from a health perspective, which makes for a rich experience here at Georgia Organics. But anyway, I was a biology major and started out working for the Nature Conservancy in Virginia and then came down to work with the Georgia program. That was just getting started back in the late 80s, early 90s, and just have worked for nonprofits in helping grow organizations to support environmental issues. And funny enough, back in 2004, I was or 2003, I was asked to be on the board. And you can appreciate that being a former board member of George Organics. And at that time, they were looking to hire their first executive director. And I thought, you know, this is this issue’s time has come. And so I took a huge salary cut, which actually isn’t really saying much good, is not like it was moving a lot of money in Reno. But, you know, the organization was pretty capacity poor. And, you know, I just I had an instinct about that, which I must say was correct.
And when I joined in 2004, you know, the next couple of years, things just exploded. And there weren’t a lot of groups working on these issues. You know, certainly there were some long standing groups like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives working with black farmers. There was a an organization that worked on community gardens here in Atlanta.
Alice Rolls: But beyond that, there really wasn’t much, particularly at the statewide level. And, you know, we had things like food, the movie Food Inc Come Out and Michael Collins book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, which really galvanized a lot of public interest around our food system and the food that we eat.
Alice Rolls: And I was very fortunate because my mom was into this back in the 70s. And so I got some early exposure to some of these issues. But it was sort of an awakening that I think our country was going through. And so Georgia Organics, our first few years were pretty heady. Like anything that we did, any activity, it was like, wait listed it in. I mean, people were really clamoring for to get involved to to learn more. And so it’s a pretty exciting time in.
Alice Rolls: And it was you know, it’s just been it’s been so fascinating. And while you might sometimes when you worked for a company or business for a long time, you might say, oh, you know, should I be moving on? The beautiful thing about sticking around is you actually get to see change. And so I’ve been very fortunate to be a witness to this blossoming movement and all the people that partners and everybody that’s gotten involved. And, you know, despite the huge challenges, that gives me hope.
Alice Rolls: When I started, there were nine farmer’s markets in Georgia.
Alice Rolls: And, you know, now there’s one hundred and fifty in a relatively short period of time, we’ve seen that kind of increase. So so that keeps me inspired in this ever changing dynamic food space that you and I are involved in now.
Brennan Washington: Were you actually involved in the formation of the organization?
Alice Rolls: No, I wasn’t actually the organization. And this is just an oral record has roots dating back to the 1970s as a support group for farmers.
Alice Rolls: So if the backbone of our work has always been farmer centric. But in 1997, people that were involved in keeping that coalition actually formally formed a nonprofit. And there were some people that kind of with a strong academic background that were involved in the early years of George Organics. So we did a lot of research and production practices around organic. There were some strong connections with the university system here in Georgia.
Alice Rolls: But the first those first couple heady years at Georgia Organics, I was also managing a lot of federal grants. And so I was pretty determined to like diversify our our income streams. Like we had wonderful programs. We were we were program rich and capacity poor. So I knew to sustain this organization, it was important to do the work, to galvanize more support from members, from private donors and philanthropy and foundations, and not be reliant on the latest USDA grant, which we wouldn’t be here probably without those USDA grants. So kudos to the USDA for providing those opportunities. But it’s important to the viability of any organization to have that kind of diversified resource base.
Brennan Washington: Yes, yes. Yes. And they’re becoming increasingly competitive. And, you know, I do a lot of speaking on grants. And I actually think for all the good they that they do grants also have some unintended bad effects, mainly mounds of pitting really good organizations against one another and competition for resources and stuff like that. And maybe as we talk about.
Brennan Washington: Really strengthening collaboration across states and of course, regions, some of that will go away.
Alice Rolls: So, yeah, I mean, the partnerships are absolutely invaluable. You know, when I think about all the partners we have, it’s pretty astounding. And our work is so much about in institutionalizing our work, whether it’s getting local political leaders or or institutions owning the needs that we have out there. So, for instance, in our farm to school work, the fact that the Department of Public Health, the Department of Education now has has farm to school staff is supporting it at the statewide level is really exciting. So we’ve got to continue to convince our institutions and political leaders that people care about this, that our farmers need that network, that infrastructure, the research marketplace. You know, I mean, we serve a million meals a day here in Georgia, to kids. And you would have thought that we’d have this pretty robust strategy to pair crop planning here in Georgia, where we grow food all year with menu planning. But that’s a complex process. And, you know, so we have to figure out how to do that. And that’s what the farm to school movement and nutrition directors and our partners, Georgia Organics, are trying to do to make headway. So not only are we getting good, healthy food into the school systems and getting kids to have experiences so that they’ll eat that food, but we’re building local economies. And so there’s so much potential to grow that even more. But yeah, those those partners are absolutely critical.
Brennan Washington: Speaking farm of to school field has been doing a lot of work, probably the leader in the state and trying to make farm school programs happen. You have the Golden Radish Awards that you from the school program had on a school incorporate. Look into the menus. And if you look back at the whole history of school lunches, there was one time where the cafeteria ladies actually cooked. And then we got into a phase where everything came out of a bag or a box or a basket. Do you think the pendulum is swinging back the other way? Now to the preparation of more fresh food in schools. Are you still seeing a lot of processed stuff?
Alice Rolls: I mean, there’s absolutely still a lot of processed food. But I think the interest is there. And, you know, one of the reasons why our Golden Radish Awards has been so successful and in six years time, we’ve gotten half the school districts applying for the Golden Radish Awards, which is basically a matrix of best practices around farm to school. And we’ve created easy onboarding process. But the reason it’s so successful is we have this cadre of amazing nutrition directors in our school systems who work hard care about kids health, have no budget, and they’re much maligned. You know, people love to complain about school lunch. And so our whole framework for Golden Radish was about lifting and celebrating those individuals and the progress that they’re making on these fronts. And, you know, we do a lot of work to celebrate them in their local community with media outreach. But that was a really smart tactic. I must say that that we adopted was trying to meet people where they are. And we literally said, well, who are the gatekeepers? It’s these people. This is their situation. We need to understand that and we need to work with them within the hurdles and obstacles and challenges that they face and recognize the heck out of them for the hard work that they do. So I do think that we’re making progress. And I’m again, I’m hopeful. I mean, I didn’t have these experiences when I was young. You know, to learn or to have, you know, food, agriculture, nutrition connected to the curriculum, to have potentially experiences in a garden or cooking things. There is. I mean, when you see these kids having these experiences out in the garden. And then when they go into the cafeteria and like radishes, you know, we grow radishes, our garden. There is I mean, you’re you’re creating lifelong habits. And so I I’m excited about the progress on farm to school, though, there.
Alice Rolls: When we think about scratch cooking, there’s a lot of things that go into that, because you’ve got to have a trained labor force. You have to have the equipment. So how do we balance the, you know, the packaged foods, getting some more and more scratch food happening? How can that happen?
Alice Rolls: You know, at a regional basis and then distribute out to maybe as various school districts so that not everybody is having to do the scratch cooking. So how do we do a better job, particularly here in Georgia, doing flash freezing of fresh cut produce that then could be used throughout the school year? So there’s a lot of innovation that. Needed. But there’s a lot of strong willed people out there that want to see that change, and I do think that the pendulum is slowly, so slowly swinging.
Brennan Washington: Good. You know, I interviewed Scott Marlow and that’s what we’ve gone through. You know Scott. Yes. Yes.
Brennan Washington: And he say to the end, you know, we talked about some really tough subjects. And I was thinking as I was listening to the interview after it was recorded, oh, my God, we’re going to scare people away now. But, you know, at the end of the episode, we did both agree that there’s a lot of hopeful signs. So I did you know, things are kind of tough for folks in our field now, and there’s a lot of hopeful signs and. What were the original goals and original mission of G.O. when it was first started? Just to give it, people feel for the organization and how has it changed?
Alice Rolls: Up until now? Well, I think originally we were solely focused more on farmers.
Alice Rolls: Not only did we dabbled a little bit and some community food work, but, you know, one of the things I’ve been passionate about is the disconnect between the public and agriculture as our food system went. So like when people weren’t following what the senator from Iowa was pushing for in the farm bill, we you know, as our our society became less agrarian, we came we we have a distant relationship. So while farmers are still at the backbone of everything we do and everywhere I go, I try and represent those farmers. We can’t do it just with an agricultural lens. And so we’ve got to get the public in the school systems and community health at a health peak. Public health officials involved in this movement to really make that change. And I think that’s the strength of our organization. And I want to give you just one real highlight from the last decade here at Georgia Organics, when we had an election for ag commissioner, I think it was back in 2009. And prior to that, we had the longest standing public official in America that had been in office and our AG Department, Tommy Irvin. And so he retired. He had been in office since the 1960s. So there wasn’t a lot of change happening in our Georgia department at Wasn’t he like 90 or something when he finally retired
Alice Rolls: We did finally. Yeah, I don’t remember it.
Alice Rolls: And so then when we we had this and it’s an elected office here in Georgia.
Alice Rolls: When that election was going on, we decided to have a sustainable agriculture debate between candidates and we got six hundred rsvps piece for that event.
Alice Rolls: And why that’s important is, first of all, I don’t think any other election that was happening on any feat, you know, that election cycle experienced such a turnout for something like that. You know, so here we are in discussing agriculture and 600 people RSVP to come to this debate, which we partnered with Emory University and held it at Emory. And what’s exciting is I said our current commissioner, who was running for office at that time, Gary Black, came to that event. And how could he not be? Take note that we had this amazing turnout and a different looking audience than what you typically see at conferences around the state, which tended to veer towards older individuals, certainly white individuals. And so I think that that garnered us some initial success, initial respect in building relations with the Department of Agriculture and our new commissioner, and he’s been supportive of the things that we’re pushing for. He might not be out there, you know, with his soap box, you know, talking about, you know, organic food.
Alice Rolls: But he’s all about lifting all boats. And so I think, you know, that that, again, just shows the importance of bringing different audiences around this issue and not siloing ourselves just in agriculture sector. So that’s, I think, been a strength of Georgia Organics as we expanded the farm to school. And so our conference every year, while we have most of our tracks, the majority of tracks are centered around farmer education. We also have school tracks and culinary and health and community tracks. And when you come to the conference, there’s something magical because we have all those people there.
Alice Rolls: And for a farmer who might come to their first George Organics conference and be working by him or herself in some rural area to come to that conference and feel that support is power. Yeah. Yeah.
Brennan Washington: I want to dive a little deeper into the conference, but I just want to go back to something that you said. I was at that debate and was pretty impressed by it. And Don Cooper and I were having a conversation a couple months ago.
Brennan Washington: This is right after the last elections. And he was saying that Commissioner Black won. Think he won by 5 percent, which is a fairly comfortable margin. But it was a lot less than we thought he would win by. And I met the candidate who was running against him. I met him at the event when Rashid retired, Truly living well down in Atlanta. And I met him, told them what I did, what kind of work I was involved in. I was hoping engaged with him on his on his youth and agriculture. He didn’t engage at all. And then Don was telling me, he didn’t even think he came from an ag background to begin with.
Brennan Washington: I don’t even know his name, but he’s not a real strong candidate. Yeah. And I say that’s the point I was getting to.
Brennan Washington: Yeah. A that would have been a disaster for us because like you say, Commissioner Black has his priorities within his department. But I’ve always fun to at least he’s always been willing to have a conversation with me. And what we used to have. Absolutely. Yeah. But as a 501c3 three five or one see three you guys can’t lobby and all that type of stuff. What how do you see yourself engaging around the political aspects of this conversation and mainly around consumer education? How do you let people know? Because you know, what we were thinking is that these. It was probably as close as it was because people were going and voting straight Democrat. A lot of urban areas without knowing. Sure. Issues were in agriculture.
Alice Rolls: Sure You know, the policy piece, I would say is as a former colleague of mine said, there’s always a big P and little P and big P.
Alice Rolls: We think about policy and legislation and then this little P, which is building relations and institutionalizing the work that we’ve been trying to do.
Alice Rolls: And I must say that our focus is more on the statewide level as more on the little P. It’s about that relationship building with Gary Black and other leaders and getting them on board versus putting some policy through the state legislature, certainly at the national level. We, as I said before, align on on farm deal issues and influence with farmers and bring people up and meet with every year. I go up there and meet with representatives to talk about the issues that we’re facing.
Alice Rolls: So, you know, that’s where we focus now.
Alice Rolls: Could we potentially be doing more on the big P policy front? Probably. But I think we need to build a strong alliance.
Alice Rolls: It’s gonna be more than just Georgia Organics pushing some policy through around, you know, soil health law or other things that we want to be advocating for. I think on with climate change and agriculture is in terms of drawing down carbon and agriculture being one of our best solutions. There’s gonna be very interesting dialogue in the next five years about that. And could that potentially accelerate opportunities if, let’s say, we get carbon markets truly happening in our organic farmers or conservation practices could stimulate some opportunity for farmers to benefit from that? That could be a real game changer.
Alice Rolls: And, you know, we got a lot of work to do on that front. I would love to have a full time. Policy advocacy person here we don’t we do it through our. All of us who our relationship building. But we’re going through strategic planning this year. And that is one of the big questions that we’re asking ourselves is what more should we be doing in that area?
Brennan Washington: All right. OK. OK. So I am a proud graduate of the Georgia, what used to be the Georgia Organic Mentoring Program. And, you know, eventually helped Don sort of manage that program for a couple of years. But I want to talk about the work that you guys do around farmers, around farmer education, the challenges that you see there. And what do you think your biggest bright spots of being with a farmer education? We’ll talk about the conference.
Alice Rolls: Sure. There’s no one cut and no model.
Alice Rolls: And it’s not like you can say, OK, do it, go do this and you’re gonna be great. You’re gonna make money in your farm that’s going to thrive. And I think sort of the transition that we’re going through, our roots are they are, like you said, in farmer to farmer mentoring programs and lots of workshops and days conferences that we tell the group dialogue group sharing that happens at those events.
Alice Rolls: It’s been a good portion of the work that we’ve done on the farmers side, but we’re shifting now to really look at ways we can try and more directly benefit farmer prosperity. So our lens is farmer prosperity and our current strategic plan and trying to meet farmers where they are.
Alice Rolls: So if one farmer really needs some help on a particular production practice, you know, we’ll work with them on that. Or maybe this farmer just needs a new version of QuickBooks. Right. You know, we’ll get it for them or this farmers suffered from Hurricane Michael and really needs some financial help and disaster relief.
Alice Rolls: And for this farmer over here, really could use a marketing coach. And so we’re trying to create a portfolio of services and not just kind of to go deeper with individual farmers and have more opportunities for them. And I and one of the reasons we haven’t been able to do that, quite frankly, is resources.
Alice Rolls: So we’re in the midst right now of a five year farmer fund campaign to raise 3.5 million dollars to provide this kind of direct services so that we’re not hampered by the inability to literally and I’m not talking about writing checks for farmers, but we might write that check to get them that new version of QuickBooks, you know, so that we have more resources here at Georgia Organics. And so we’ve got a strong campaign right now to to loosen that up, promote, provide more flexibility and try and meet our farmers where they are.
Alice Rolls: We now have and what’s important here is that we have the staffing and man and woman power to meet our farmers and to go visit with them and sit down with them and walk them through the organic certification process and provide that kind of one on one guidance. And so I’m happy to say we actually have three full time staff person. We also have Brian Hager, who is a certified organic farmer. He’s working with us on an in our NRCS outreach project with the USDA. He’s out in the field and helping us. So we’ve got four individuals, one consultant and three employees that are out and about in helping our farmers. And that has been just making a huge difference in that. All right. We’re already seeing the impact from farmers coming back and said, you know, I’ve gone to conferences, but now I really feel like I’m benefiting from being a member of this organization. So that’s what we want to continue to try and do while we look at, you know, the big issues facing so many farmers.
Brennan Washington: You know, I’ve been a that was a difficult role for you guys to navigate because I remember just hearing and, you know, more better than anyone that one of the big complaints you used to hear about Georgia organics is that you were Atlanta focused too much. Slowly, I began to see with the resources, you know, poor Don. He was one guy for the entire state. Yeah. You know, it’s been really nice. I didn’t even know about some of the other issues.
Brennan Washington: It has been nice to see you guys dipping your toe into these other important pools, for example, health insurance. I think you’re the only organization that really looked at the issue of health insurance for farmers. And this is this is even before the Affordable Care Act was put in place.
Alice Rolls: And, you know, that’s again, like we got to get out there and make those asks.
Alice Rolls: And just to give you, we’ve been working a while trying to research and figure out how can we help our farmers on this health insurance issue. And it just so happened that one of our farm to school supporters, funders, Kaiser Permanente, had a program called the Bridge Program, which was trying to provide low. Underresourced individuals in different sectors. A leg up by providing health insurance for a couple years and trying while somebody is trying to get back in the job force or looking at some sectors like people in the arts community who just were poor, hardest and didn’t have health insurance. And so I literally just said, hey, would you ever consider doing that for farmers? And to their credit, they said, I want to see why not. So part of that, again, is like, you got to be out there and show up and seize those opportunities. And so that resulted in them including and creating an application process that we worked on. And it definitely took some resources to do this. But we’ve had a thirty one farmers go through that program and we’re talking about gold level health insurance. Now, it’s not a long term solve by any stretch of the imagination, but if a farmer is trying to, you know, in those early years grow their farm business and not in one of the riskiest professions to be able to have peace of mind that you have health insurance.
Alice Rolls: And I’m proud to say we had two what we call a bridge program, babies, farmers, they don’t really where farmers literally felt like they could have kids because they had health insurance. So, again, that’s not a long term solution. And we need to figure out and we’ll look at potentially providing some stipends that might support some coverage or some assistance for health care for our farmers. But that’s the kind of innovation that we need to be thinking about. And so the farmer prosperity, lens is saying, what are the costs? How can we reduce costs? What are the challenges that keeping people from even considering farming as a career and certainly health insurance is one of them. The other big one, which I don’t have an answer for, is student debt. So so we’re we’ve been trying to look at those big issues and figuring out how how can we be a support system for that.
Alice Rolls: And with the being just a small nonprofit within reason, so.
Brennan Washington: Yeah. Yeah. And another area, it seems that that I’m passionate about that it seems georgia organics is trying to look at this whole area of a infrastructure, but also marketing, looking at new ways for farmers to be able to sell their products. And I know I think with last year, you guys got a local food promotion grant program.
Alice Rolls: Yes, we did. And restaurants, you’re talking about what they’re more. Sure. So we got a grant from USDA is local food promotion program to launch a farm to restaurant campaign.
Alice Rolls: And this is our chef and restaurant community. You know, when I talked about those early, heady years of Georgia organics, we got to give credit to the culinary community that had relationships with farmers, that understood the quality of taste and really helped bring that to the public. So they’ve been very much part of this movement. And there was an exposé done about I think it’s three or four years ago that the Tampa Bay Times did on.
Alice Rolls: And it was called what was it called, Farm to Fable, the Expo name. And they basically went undercover. And there are a lot of restaurants that were claiming they were serving local food.
Alice Rolls: And it turns out that they weren’t. And thought a lot about that article and thought, you know, these these chefs, I think, you know, I don’t think people as chef community sets out to, like deceive consumers. I think they just get busy. And it’s hard work, you know, to source and, you know, work with farmers or, you know, smaller aggregators. It’s just more work for them. And I always say farmers and restaurant farms and restaurants are two the hardest working professions with the slimmest margins. So you’re pairing those two together and it’s no wonder that this doesn’t happen in any kind of more robust way. So the farm to restaurant campaign was meant to try and on-board will recognize restaurants much like we did with Golden Radish. Let’s recognize those restaurants who are authentically putting dollars in the pockets of our farmers. And then let’s create easy ways for restaurants and chefs to begin that process and have some win early, win small wins and then get them on board and then move them into, you know, more and more consistent purchasing a supporting local and organic farmers. So with this program, Lauren Cox has been leading this, who’s actually has a history being an organic farmer. So she understands what it’s like to farm. She understands the hurdles on that side. And she used to sell to a lot of restaurants. So she understood that. And we’re really lucky to have her.
Brennan Washington: She’s not the manager at Peachtree anymore.
Alice Rolls: No, no. That’s Lauren Carey. That’s another.
Alice Rolls: So what we did was or she did leading this effort was to create a cohort of farmers that applied to be part of this campaign. And then we shared best practices with them. A lot of training. We did a speed dating with chefs and them. And what’s resulted from that is a strengthening of those relationships, understanding of what the challenges are on both sides. And so our goal is to break down those barriers and help from both the farmer side and the chef side to make this happen. And so in May of this year, we’ll be launching our recognition event called Seated at the Table. And that will be an event for all these chefs and restaurants that that basically submit information on their procurement. And so there’s a strong authenticity in this without policing. This is like a voluntary thing. So and we’re monitoring what the purchases are and we’re even monitoring who’s purchasing from certified organic farmers so we can also be lifting organic agriculture. And so they’ll literally we’ll be able to create a scale and recognize everybody, even if they’re taking some small steps. Recognize everybody, but also be able to recognize who’s really, really walking that walk. And so we have farmer champion stickers that already are on some of the restaurants who are authentically doing this. And our goal with this campaign is to get 100 restaurants that are authentically purchasing from local and organic farmers as part of this campaign. And what’s critical to this also is to try this in the public sphere and say, hey, you ain’t the foodie that loves to go to these restaurants. Think about here’s the list of these restaurants that are really going the extra mile. Please support these restaurant. Be a patron of these restaurants. So we come full circle and those restaurants see benefit from a marketing standpoint and on actual bodies and seats at their restaurant, people that align and with that philosophy and want to support our farmers in those restaurants a way forward because of those forefronts probably don’t have time to develop this type of program.
Alice Rolls: Exactly. So we want to create some of the marketing for them both for, you know, with the event, but also at the restaurant itself.
Alice Rolls: And we’ll have a lot of collateral material to help them educate their clients. So so, you know, this is an opportunity to, again, keep the farmers at the center of it. But leveraging these these different advocates and longtime supporters like the culinary community and continue to push for strengthened purchasing and procurement.
Brennan Washington: I have one more thing I want to discuss with you before we talk about the conference, because your conference is always so much fun. People need to know about if they don’t know about it already. But the other thing of her criticism I’ve heard directed at Georgia Organics and not just Georgia Organics, but other large, for lack of a better word, whiter organization, is that you’ve been that you aren’t attentive to issues, a form of color.
Brennan Washington: And I’ve seen it play out from very virulent, hostile, just angry attacks that typically are I dismissed out of hand.
Brennan Washington: But sometimes some some some thoughtful things about lack of engagement or partnerships around things like plants and stuff like that. So you often hear the complaints, quote, very little. And you know, me, when I travel around, I try and be a bridge builder. So I like to give you an opportunity to speak to that issue. You know, what will you tell people who have those reservations?
Alice Rolls: Tell them that we’re a work in progress. I would also say that, you know, when I came to Georgia Organics, I knew a lot of the earlier mentoring grants we were partnering with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
Alice Rolls: We do have a history of partnership. Did we have maybe the aligning deep understanding? Probably not. But there was there was an intent among the early founders to look at that which were chart organics. But we we faltered.
Alice Rolls: We’ve we’re growing with this whole nation in this this and hopefully improve dialogue and support for African and African-American farmers. I mean, we haven’t even touched the Latino farmer. There’s not even a group here that focuses on lifting Latino farmers in the state. So there is not one in the southeast where a young movement. And we’re really young on these issues and certainly as an organization. And now I’ll certainly take some criticism for that as being the leader of the organization and a credit to Rashid Nuri, who’s our keynote speaker this year when he became board president. That’s where I really just my personal experience is with. I grew up a bit on these issues and and so I give him a lot of credit for helping us think differently at Georgia organic, so we’re still a work in progress. But the fact that we’re really our staff here is is incredibly I mean, they’re very dedicated to social equity. As a younger generation, that has more passion than I grew up with. So I’m learning from them. And it was them and our partners that said, hey, we need to do a black farmer prosperity track at our conference. To their credit, and I was, of course, incredibly supportive of that. We’ve been doing a lot of just internal training right now to understand and be able to get in the discomfort zone in communications and talking about these issues. So, you know, that’s where we are. But I think our heart’s in the right place. And we whenever we’re looking at any of our programming, whether it’s the farm to restaurant cohorts, we’re always looking. Are we being inclusive? So I think we’re making progress. But some of that criticism is absolutely warranted. But the heart is definitely there. I welcome any dialogue. I welcome, you know, my my continuing education as a leader of this organization continue to try and get leadership at the board level. You and Rashid and others have really been a positive influence in that direction.
Brennan Washington: And I know that to GO’s credit, not only have you reached out to myself and other people of color when it comes to things like board openings, but even when you’re putting together programs, I know that’s something that Michael and Don were very, very focused on, was making sure that any farmer training programs were inclusive. And that’s all I’ve seen, a big change just in. And 10 or so years I’ve been associated with the organization. Yes. And, you know, unfortunately, these things get out and why and what I try to educate people as I go around. I’ll give you an example. I was heading to Mississippi and I wasn’t leaving on this particular day was a Saturday. I got up, got a cup of coffee and got on to Facebook. And I started reading this thread about some folks in Jackson, Mississippi, were going bonkers because this white organization had gotten a 3 million dollar grant to do some sort of work around food, justice and social equity in the Jackson area. And I had read a couple of times before I figured it out they were talking about NCAT and I work very closely with NCAT and the grant was actually written written by Felicia Bell, who made the whole work for NCAT and Rockiel Woods. Both of them are African-American. And sometimes people criticize just to be criticized that no one knew who NCAT was, their work was. And I think it’s important that we start to have these dialogues. And then the other thing I was I pointed out is not everybody has the capacity to manage a three million dollar grant. So as long as they were being inclusive and a fun day or two, you can get your organizations up to the point where you have no right, just gonna hand you $3 million dollars And people need to understand that stuff.
Brennan Washington: So we’re about a month away from the conference, a little less than that.
Alice Rolls: Ok, so the details when and where our conference, which we know the hold annually and moves around the state is in Athens, Georgia, February 7th and 8th, which is a Friday and Saturday.
Alice Rolls: And the Friday consists of farm tours, in-depth workshops, all day workshops. And then we have an Expo Risk Expo and an excellent reception Friday night. And then Saturday is the day where you have all day sessions and educational tracks. And I want to thank you for supporting that through your association with Southern SARE. He’s the sponsor of Georgia Organics Conference, along with other many, many wonderful partners. And then we will have a very interesting lunch this year. Normally we just have a networking lunch.
Alice Rolls: But Chef Alice Waters, who’s a very celebrated national chef from Berkeley, California, had the restaurant shape knees back in the 60s and 70s and really was the inspiration for early farm to table and California cuisine. And it’s a very passionate advocate for from the school is going to where basically she’s gonna be there. And we’re going to do a reimagined school lunch. She’s passionate about not only sourcing from good food from local farmers, but she’s also passionate about the community of eating and coming around the table together. So we’re going to kind of simulate her vision of what a school lunch could be and we’ll go through that exercise. And the reason we are able to track Alice Waters was chef Matthew Raiford. Who’s on our board of directors is a farmer and a chef from Brunswick, Georgia. He’s a semifinalist for a James Beard Award. He has worked. He’s. You see, he’s living in rarefied air these days, the now circulating at the national level and getting to know a lot of these national famous chefs. And so he actually did one of these with Chef Waters at Al Gore’s ranch in Tennessee back in the fall for three hundred people. And so he understands how to execute this and on real end, suggesting, hey, you know, would you come to Georgia do that? So this will be the largest one that Chef Waters has done. She’s done about four of these around the country. So we’re really excited, one just to have her in Georgia, but also to to execute this and procure from local farmers and experience, you know, the community of eating with her. So we’ve got that. And then more educational sessions and we culminate with our with our traditional farmers feast. That is that’s where we’re Rashid Nuri and urban ag national icon will be speaking. And we also give out two words our pollinator award in our land stewardship award every year and eat some really good food.
Brennan Washington: Yes. Yes, we do. Yeah. From from the little value added products that you have an app. And I’m so glad I know how expensive it is to develop a conference period. But really, when you start talking about food, it becomes in some conferences, it’s actually started to eliminate their meals. But I just find that such a valuable time to fellowship and people and I just love the farmers feast. And you know, when we just have hip surgery, if I had to push it up to Athens in a wheelchair.
Alice Rolls: She’s good.
Brennan Washington: So does your conference have a specific theme this year?
Alice Rolls: You know, we used to do a theme, but we just we’re not anymore.
We’re just it’s the Georgia Organics Conference and the focus on with the black farmer prosperity and Rasheed’s speaking, obviously, there certainly is an underlying theme of farmers of color. But now we don’t we don’t have any.
Brennan Washington: Hey, Alice you guys got me working hard at the school now there we need to advocating. I mean, you’re a man about town.
Brennan Washington: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Alice Rolls: You’re a you’re a vector for information. And, you know, like I said before, we leave you sharing what you’re hearing and learning about other states and areas around the country, because I know you just national traveled to so differently.
Brennan Washington: So if we’re talking about the conference, I don’t really go through the program yet. But tell me about hempand have farmers been contacting you? I mean, I’m a little scared of all the hype around it. I really am.
Brennan Washington: I’ve already heard about instances with farmers getting ripped off, getting so bad seed or or harvesting crops with the they did qualify to be used to like CBD oils that are basically 5, 4, 5, 10 acres for basically nothing. What have you been seeing any interest in Georgia? I know Georgia has been lagging behind.
Alice Rolls: But yeah, we’re we’re lagging behind because the state chose to to not dip in their toes into this as fast as other states with the intention of learning from mistakes and seeing what’s going to come about from other states.
Alice Rolls: That may be good and bad because that may be good that we don’t make some of those mistakes, but also might put us on and other states and really advancing. So, yes, we’ve definitely heard from some farmers that are interested in this and believe we have a session at our conference on hemp. And we’ve also identified this is a big question for us thinking about policy and our strategic plan this year. Now, how much attention should we be giving this? Because. Because hemp is, you know, has a strong bio. It’s strong bio accumulating plant that you can have stronger toxicity if you’re growing hemp in soils that have been treated with a lot of pesticides. And because CBD oil is something that’s more on the health side.
Alice Rolls: You’ve got buyers that are interested in the health component. So the organic production practices. It may be an opportunity for farmers to grow this crop. You know, as a cash crop in addition to vegetables or or other crops. Also, the crop does not want itself to heavy mechanization. So that also might favor smaller farmers in doing that. So I think the important thing that we don’t want to happen is if opportunity is coming down the pike, we want our farmers to not be left out. And, you know, some fewer, bigger. Well-financed farms or businesses be the only ones in the game. So we want to be an advocate for any kinds of opportunity. And I certainly know and I’ve talked to farmers in other states, some farmers that we’re from the south, but have this one fascinating conversation with an Alabama farmer that’s now farms in Oregon and grows cannabis. I mean, he said, you know, I’m a vegetable farmer. I love growing vegetables. But I wouldn’t be able to do this if I wasn’t able to grow medical marijuana. And I know I’m moving beyond him here to cannabis. But that it’s just a really fascinating conversation about, you know, what are some of these crops out here that will allow some of our farmers to survive and thrive in a difficult business, a changing climate. So we’ve got to keep our eye on these issues and make sure that small farms, organic farmers, have equal access and opportunity to these emerging markets. So we’ll well, we’ll be Wes Swansea with Riverview Farms. He’s actually West is going to our land. He and his wife, Charlotte, are our land stewardship award winners this year.
Alice Rolls: He’s doing a session with Jim Coulomb, who’s at the Edges Department of Water Culture to talk about the varieties and growing conditions of hemp. West is actually been experimenting on some land in Tennessee. That’s a little further along on hemp than Georgia. So they’ll be sharing what they’ve learned. It’s a complicated. It’s a complicated situation. So we’ll try and keep our finger on the pulse.
Brennan Washington: And I just hope and what I’m trying to educate farmers about as I find more information about circumstances like this, but that we get in early on the game on all the infrastructure related, you know, everybody just CBD.
Brennan Washington: Cbd, CBD. Yeah. Yeah. What is really discussing fiber? I just found out that you’re actually putting in a hemp fiber production plant in Virginia. That’s all. Someone told me I’m going to sell more. Yeah, not bad. But we need to get into the loop on these type of things generally. So A, when I priced out and be the farmers, you know, control farmers got to control it supply chain a little bit better. Right. So I want to thank you, Alice. This has been very nice. And I’m looking forward, actually. I think I’ll be seeing you guys next week when the board comes.
Alice Rolls: Oh, yeah. Our board is coming to your farm and we look forward to being at Phoenix Gardens and appreciate the invite.
Brennan Washington: Every time I go down the hill, I look at the new hoop house I’m supposed to be putting out, which I don’t know how you do what you do and firing.
Brennan Washington: Yes. Yes. But I’m looking forward to the conference. And really thank you for this conversation, too.
Alice Rolls: Thanks, Brennan. Appreciate your take.
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