Georgia farms put best foot forward for AFBF visitors
By Jennifer Whittaker, Georgia Farm Bureau
Three Georgia farm tours offered during the 2022 American Farm Bureau Convention gave farmers from across the country a glimpse of Georgia agriculture.
On Jan. 8, the “Got Milk? Got a Green Thumb?” Tour took about 26 farmers from across the U.S. and 16 international diplomatic staff who handle agricultural policy for their countries to Hillcrest Farms and McCorkle Nurseries in McDuffie County. The tour participants traveled on two buses with one bus touring Hillcrest Farms Inc., while the other bus toured McCorkle Nurseries. The two groups met at lunch hosted by the McDuffie County Farm Bureau at the Dearing Community Center.
During the tour of Hillcrest Farms Inc., owned and operated by father, Billy, his sons Mark and Marci, and Andy and Jan Rodgers, and their children Caitlin, and Joshua and Marlee Rodgers, the tour group learned how the family makes the comfort and health of their cows their top priority.
The tour of the four-generation farm began in the farm’s viewing room where visitors are able to see cows milked in two of the five robotic milking stations the Rodgers began using in 2019. The farm is the first in Georgia to install robotic milkers, which allow the cows to walk into the milking station to be milked when the cow wants to be milked.
A blue activity monitor that each cow wears around her neck operates similar to a Fitbit. When the cow enters the robotic milking station, a computer reads the chip & downloads data about the cow's temperature, movements, and milk production, etc., that helps the Rodgers monitor the cow's health.
Soft, sand beds and backscratchers help make the cows comfortable as they eat and relax in their barn in between milkings. During the summer, fans and water misters help them to stay cool.
Hillcrest Farms implements environmentally friendly management practices by using the manure its cows produce to fertilize the forage crops grown on the farm to feed the cows. The farm also runs recycled water through the alleys of the freestall barns to flush away the cows' manure and loose sand. The sand is separated from the manure water and purified before being used again.
During the tour of McCorkle Nurseries, tour guests learned how the McCorkles propagate, grow, market and ship the almost 1,000 varieties of woody ornamentals, perennials and groundcover plants they grow. In its 80th year, McCorkle Nurseries is owned and operated by Donald and Jack McCorkle and their sons, Skeetter and Chris McCorkle. The business was started by Donald and Jack’s father.
Skeetter McCorkle discussed the many facets of the operation that markets more than 4 million plants each year to more than 1,800 customers in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic States. He discussed how the nursery collects rainwater in ponds to irrigate its plants and collects runoff water as plants are irrigated to use again.
Brian Jernigan, who oversees the propagation and patent efforts at McCorkle Nurseries, discussed the research the nursery does on its own and in cooperation with universities or other nurseries to develop new varieties of plants. McCorkle Nurseries developed the Endless Summer hydrangea that blooms multiple times throughout the summer. Jernigan has patented three new gardenia varieties.
“It’s not a cheap nor a quick process to develop a new variety. A new gardenia we recently patented took ten years to develop,” said Jernigan.
McCorkle Nurseries has patented almost 100 new plant varieties in the past 15 years, including a dwarf crape myrtle, Endless Summer hydrangeas and gardenias with double blooms. The nursery begins the process by planting thousands of seedlings that are whittled down to one or two with the trait being sought.
Chris McCorkle discussed how the nursery uses six Harvest Automation robots to move plants from one location to another in the greenhouses to free up their employees to do more important tasks like propagation or repotting. The nursery has been using these robots for six years.
The Harvest Automation robots used at McCorkle Nurseries save employees from the back-breaking job of moving plants about the greenhouses. Since finding workers is an issue, the robots allows the McCorkles to use their employees for more productive tasks.
All tour participants gathered at the Dearing Community Center for a delicious barbecue lunch hosted by the McDuffie County Farm Bureau. The tour group experienced true Southern hospitality with a delicious barbecue lunch catered by Neil’s Bar-B-Q and tables beautifully decorated with centerpieces highlighting Georgia commodities by Christan Rosier. Each guest left with a gift bag containing a souvenir from Thomson, the county seat of McDuffie County, compliments of the Thomson/McDuffie County Convention Visitors Bureau.
MCFB President Sammy McCorkle welcomed the tour group to McDuffie County and MCFB Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee Chairman Jonathan Rosier read a welcome statement to the group from Dearing Mayor Sean Kelly who was unable to attend due to being sick. Gayle McCorkle, Angie Roberts, and Office Manager Kim Cora Kay played a major role in hosting the lunch and preparing for the tour.
On Jan. 11, a group of 40 AFBF attendees took the “I Feel the Need for Speed & Southern Hospitality” Tour in Henry County.
Participants got a VIP tour of the Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS) that included a stop at the start/finish line in the AMS Grandstands and a chance to stand in the winner’s circle at Victory Lane. The guests also saw the 120-acre infield, walked in the pit lanes and saw the Richard Petty Memorial Garden.
Henry County Farm Bureau hosted lunch for the tour group at Harvest Pointe United Methodist Church, serving a delicious meal of baked chicken, meatloaf, green beans and macaroni and cheese. HCFB President Ross McQueen welcomed the tour and discussed how urban sprawl from Atlanta has affected agriculture in the county. McQueen told the group that the land where the speedway is located was once fields of soybeans, corn and cotton. HCFB volunteers including Joyce White, Clark & Carolyn Runion, Ross & Carol McQueen and Office Manager Jean Dykes coordinated the decorations and served the meal.
After lunch the tour traveled to Southern Belle Farm where Jimmy Carter welcomed the group, telling how he once operated a dairy on the farm but transitioned into agritourism and growing strawberries, peaches and other fruit after his son, Jake, returned home from college.
Farm Manager Daniel Welliver spoke to the group about the farm’s you-pick operation and the field trips that bring over 20,000 local students to the farm each school year. The tour participants also took a hayride around the farm to see the beef cattle, peach and blueberry orchards and blackberry patches. Southern Belle served the guests fresh homemade strawberry short cake with homemade ice cream, all made in its kitchen.
On Jan. 11 a second group of 40 AFBF attendees enjoyed the “Apples, Wine & Beautiful North Georgia Mountains” Tour traveling to Fannin County where they visited Mercier Orchards and Gilmer County where they toured R&A Orchards and Engelheim Vineyards.
The first stop was R & A Orchards where Andy Futch welcomed the group with coffee, cider, fried pies and apple donuts. The group learned about the variety of apples grown in North Georgia and the type of maintenance needed for tree care. The tour included a wagon ride around the orchard and learned the history of the farm.
The second stop was at Mercier Orchards. Tim Mercier welcomed the group and his son-in-law David Lillard gave a tour of the market, cider making process and the bakery. The group enjoyed lunch made by Mercier Orchards.
The third stop was at Engelheim Vineyards where the guests split into two groups. One half toured the grounds exploring the vineyard’s new wedding facility and learning about the wine making process from their wine maker, Billy. The other half enjoyed a wine tasting learning about the different types of wine made on the estate.
GFB Certified Farm Market Coordinator Kelly Henry & GFB 5th Dist. Field Manager Kari Creamer contributed information to this article.