Ag News

GFB members dig in at 86th annual convention

by Jennifer Whittaker

Posted on Dec 14, 2023 at 22:44 PM

Some 1,411 Georgia farmers and agribusiness leaders from across the state met on Jekyll Island Dec. 3-5 for the 86th Annual Georgia Farm Bureau (GFB) Convention. The three-day event included a trade show, awards presentations and educational sessions that briefed farmers on policy and production issues affecting Georgia’s major commodities.

Jekyll Island Authority Executive Director Mark Williams welcomed convention guests at the start of the general session on Dec. 4. GFB President Tom McCall delivered his annual address and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper gave an overview of what the Georgia Department of Agriculture has accomplished during his first year in office. Motivational speaker Matt Lohr encouraged members of Georgia’s agriculture community to create a lasting legacy that positively impacts others.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, both in Atlanta due to a special session of the Georgia General Assembly, provided video messages to GFB members.

The convention’s “Diggin’ In ” theme referenced how GFB has given Georgia farmers a united voice in the legislative halls of Atlanta and Washington, D.C., since it began in 1937, and gave GFB members a chance to enhance their leadership and advocacy skills with a series of speakers. Convention events also highlighted the leadership development and ag awareness programs the organization’s 158-chapter offices and volunteer members conduct statewide to prepare the next generation of ag leaders and connect with consumers.

McCall highlights GFB’s legislative work, announces intent to seek re-election

GFB President Tom McCall celebrated the organization’s successes in 2023 during his annual address. McCall highlighted GFB legislative achievements during the past year and issues the organization is addressing. Legislative successes included influencing the increased truck weight variance for agricultural and forestry products up to 88,000 pounds and helping to establish the Georgia Ag Conservation Easement Program, which will provide state funds to preserve farmland from development.

“No matter what circumstances we face, resilience and perseverance are characteristics that make farmers who they are,” McCall said. “My hope is that you will keep that attitude of diggin’ in top of mind when you think about how you can help Farm Bureau remain the voice of agriculture in our great state.”

He said GFB is also working to address deer crop damage, fighting for reasonable H-2A labor provisions, protecting private property rights and access to water, pushing back against burdensome EPA regulations, protecting funding for natural disaster assistance and fighting unfair trade impacts from cheap imports.

McCall pointed out that GFB hasn’t wavered from its founding purpose 86 years ago to provide leadership and assistance to farmers to ensure agriculture is a thriving business.

“As a membership organization, our members are our mission. They are the reason we were founded, and they’ll be the reason why we have a sustainable future,” he said.

McCall, who is beginning the second year of his second, two-year term, announced that he plans to run for re-election in 2024.                                                    

“We have new fields to sow, challenges to overcome and victories to be won. That is why today, with humility and dedication, I am announcing my intention to run for re-election as president of Georgia Farm Bureau,” McCall said.

Kemp: Still pushing initiatives to support farmers and rural Georgia

Via video, Gov. Kemp said that in Fiscal Year 2024 the state is making additional funds available to support research positions for citrus, blueberry, peach and peanut projects, saying these studies “are important steps in securing a prosperous future for our farmers.”

He also noted the opening of a new dairy processing facility in Lowndes County, as well as the suspension of fuel and diesel taxes during the fall harvest season.

“I look forward to working alongside partners like Commissioner Harper and all of you to protect the resources our farming families depend on,” Kemp said.

Lt. Gov. Jones thanked the state’s farmers for their work to provide food, clothing and shelter.

“I just want to tell you how much I appreciate Farm Bureau and all its members and what you do for the great state of Georgia. Agriculture is the number one industry, and it can't be said enough,” Jones said. “We can't ever forget what our small and large farmers do for our state's economy.”

Harper says GDA working hard for Georgia farmers & consumers

Georgia’s 17th Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper gave an overview of what the Georgia Department of Agriculture has accomplished since he took office in January.

“Your Georgia Department of Agriculture staff works on your behalf day in and day out. We issue over 70 different licenses for Georgians,” said Harper, a seventh-generation farmer from Irwin County. “I can’t think of another state agency that impacts every Georgian every day.

Harper discussed the GDA’s efforts to increase consumers’ understanding of agriculture.

“Urban Georgians depend on rural Georgia to feed and clothe them. Rural Georgians depend on urban Georgians to buy their products,” Harper said. “We [farmers] have to make others understand how we do what we do and why. Most people think agriculture is cows, sows and plows. We’ve got to educate consumers to realize the technology and innovative production practices farmers are using to grow their food while protecting the soil and water on their farms.”

One way the GDA worked to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers this year was by partnering with the Atlanta Braves to promote its Georgia Grown program that spotlights food items grown and processed in the state.

Harper said the GDA Food Safety Team passed its third-year audit and that the GDA Meat Inspection Team is doing such a good job that the USDA has asked it to teach inspectors in other states.

Since the first non-native Yellow-Legged Hornet was detected in the U.S. in the Savannah area on Aug. 9, Harper said the GDA has worked with the USDA Animal Protection Health Inspection Service and UGA College of Agriculture staff to identify, trap and eradicate five nests of the invasive species.

The GDA has prioritized eradicating and limiting the spread of the hornet because it is a predator of pollinators. There are more than 100 different commodities that rely on pollinators to cross-fertilize crop plants and make a crop such as watermelons, blueberries, strawberries, corn and many vegetables grown in Georgia, according to the GDA. Harper has said in previous statements that pollinators have about a $450 million impact on Georgia agriculture.

 The GDA has launched a biweekly newsletter, The Yellow-Legged Ledger, to provide important updates. Sign up for the Yellow-Legged Ledger here.

Harper said the GDA is working to address the feral hog population in rural Georgia causing significant crop loss.

“We’ve reinstated the feral hog task force and we’re working alongside the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Soil & Water Conservation Service to implement trapping and eradication programs,” Harper said.

He thanked Farm Bureau for partnering with the GDA on projects and praised GFB’s advocacy and agriculture awareness efforts.

“You have a phenomenal team working to promote agriculture, to educate others about it and to represent agriculture in Atlanta and D.C.,” Harper said.

Motivational speaker Lohr gives tips for leaving a positive legacy

While delivering the GFB annual convention keynote speech, fifth-generation farmer, father and agriculture advocate Matt Lohr encouraged members of Georgia’s ag community to create a lasting legacy for agriculture that positively impacts others by making their voice heard.

Through the years, Lohr has advocated for agriculture in numerous roles which include USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief under former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and now as Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.

Lohr encouraged convention attendees to persevere and draw on their faith when tough times come. He discussed the importance of accepting that although life isn’t fair, you can turn negatives into positives by being determined and playing the hands you’ve been dealt wisely.

Lastly, Lohr encouraged Farm Bureau staff and volunteers to gladly serve others by loving, growing and serving.

“Welcome and greet customers when they come in the door. Bad or good interactions can stay with people for years,” Lohr said. “It’s the little things we do that will make the greatest impact and make a difference in someone’s life to leave a positive legacy.”

Lohr and his two children own Valley Pike Farm in the Shenandoah Valley where they produce poultry, beef, sweet corn and soybeans.

Williams welcomes GFB members to Jekyll Island

Jekyll Island (JI) Authority Executive Director Mark Williams gave a preview of some improvements the authority is making to expand the JI Campground and to improve the golf courses. The authority is adding 56 camping sites and six yurts to the campground, Williams said.

“This is the highest volume campground in Georgia’s State Park system,” said Williams, who previously served 14 years as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Williams said the Mercer University Medical School has opened a clinic in JI’s main shopping village on the beach that offers urgent and primary medical care for Jekyll visitors, the island’s 600 permanent residents and area residents.          

“State legislation mandates that 65% of the island must remain undeveloped, and we’re about maxed out on development” Williams said.

He encouraged convention attendees to drive around the island at night to enjoy the Holly Jolly Christmas Light display that JI employees started putting up in July.

“We appreciate Georgia Farm Bureau continuing to hold your convention here and look forward to you returning,” Williams said.

Stuckey shares leadership tips she’s using to rebuild family business

Since buying back her family’s business in 2019, Stephanie Stuckey has utilized leadership lessons she learned from her grandfather to bring back the Stuckey’s brand in what she calls the “Stuckey’s Comeback Journey.”  Stephanie shared these leadership lessons while speaking at a lunch to honor county Farm Bureau presidents and office managers at the 2023 GFB Convention,

Stephanie discussed why she was inspired to buy the family business back and how she has reinvigorated the brand and product line now offered online, at 65 licensed locations and more than 200 retailers.

She is the third generation of her family to run the business her grandfather, W.S. Stuckey Sr. started in 1937 with a pecan stand in Eastman, Ga. Stuckey’s grandmother, Ethel, elevated the humble pecan stand to a roadside destination by making and selling pecan logs at her husband’s request. These and other pecan candies Mrs. Ethel made inspired W.S. Stuckey to create a chain of rest stop stores headquartered in Dodge County.

Stuckey’s became the Buc-ees or QuickTrip of its day – a must-stop destination for Americans traveling across the U.S. in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. At its peak, the Georgia-based company had 368 teal-roofed stores in 30-plus states. More than 4,000 billboards beckoned weary travels to take a break from the road to refuel with snacks and souvenir shopping.

“The comeback story is universal, and so much of my story  that I’ve been sharing [leadership lessons I’ve been learning] is universal,” Stephanie said.

Stuckey’s Leadership Lessons

1)Embrace Change

When Stuckey’s stores first opened, they were strategically located on major U.S. highways like the Dixie Highway Network, Route 66, and the Lincoln Highway, all which ran through the heart of towns and cities. In 1956, Congress passed and funded legislation to build a network of federal interstates that bypassed downtown business areas.

“Change happens. Change is what forces us to get out of our comfort zone and build back better. My grandfather had to accept change was happening and move his stores to survive,” Stephanie said.  “My grandfather didn’t just accept change. He embraced it. He made the best of a really hard situation. He built his new interstate stores with a consistent architectural style with those iconic teal roofs. We broke up the monotony of miles and miles of gray cement the interstates created.” 

2)Create a Sense of Place & Belonging

“Our Stuckey’s stores offered unique items that reflected the location where they were,” Stephanie said. “For example, in a California area that grew dates, the store offered a date shake. Stores in areas where fishing was big sold fishing gear. My grandfather brought Main Street America to the interstate.”

3)Have a Purpose

For the Stuckey family, the purpose of their stores was “Every traveler is a friend.” This included African Americans during segregation when there were few Southern restaurants and motels that would serve them.

“My grandfather ran the business so that every customer was treated with warmth and appreciation,” Stephanie said. “Stuckey’s was never segregated during the Jim Crowe Era. Stuckey’s was listed in the [annual] Green Book.”

Stephanie said that 30 years after her grandfather died in 1977, when she was running for a Georgia House seat in Metro-Atlanta, a prominent African American pastor endorsed her because her grandfather had served African Americans during segregation. 

“I share this story to illustrate that your purpose will live on for decades after you’re gone. Treating people with respect and kindness is the 'secret sauce',” Stephanie said.

Restoring the Stuckey’s legacy

Stephanie – a former member of the Georgia House for 14 years and an environmental lawyer -  hadn’t planned on buying the family business.

“I was minding my own business saving the environment, and I get the unexpected opportunity to buy my family’s business,” she recalled. “The business was six figures in debt and all but 12 of the 368 stores were completely shuttered.”

She recalled going to her father, Billy, to get his blessing for her endeavor. He gave her his blessing, but it came with a strong dose of reality.

“‘You’ve never even run a lemonade stand. What makes you think you can run Stuckey’s,’” Stephanie recalled her father asking.

Her dad’s response didn’t deter her.

“It’s those moments when people tell you that you can’t do something that make you want to do it,” Stephanie said.

After purchasing the company, Stephanie and a friend began visiting the remaining stores. One store had a hole in the roof and “looked awful.”

She asked a man standing in line to make a purchase why he was there at a rundown store to which he replied, “Maybe Stuckey’s has seen better days, but I still remember what a special place it was as a kid.”

When her grandfather was running Stuckey’s, the business bought Georgia pecans.

“We always sold pecan products sourced direct from local farmers in Georgia,” Stephanie said. “When I bought the company, we were getting our nuts from Mexico.”

Stephanie has gone back to the company’s roots and is once again using only Georgia-grown pecans to make her products. She’s partnered with R.G. Lamar from Hawkinsville to source pecans and has a candy factory in Wrens, Ga., that makes and distributes Stuckey’s candy and nuts.

“All of our products are sourced 100 percent with pecans grown in Georgia,” Stephanie said.

“I’m keeping the lessons I learned from my grandfather to bring back our brand.”

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