Capitol Recap: Pandemic’s Impact on Food and Fiber, and Plans to Overcome
By: Sen. Larry Walker (R – Perry)
We’ve seen a drop in temperature over recent weeks and some crisp mornings. Fall is definitely in the air, which signals exciting Friday night and Saturday football games, fun at the Georgia National Fair (in “normal” years) and much anticipated harvest time for Georgia farmers. However, the pandemic has impacted just about every aspect of our life and significantly changed, or cancelled, our seasonal traditions.
Nevertheless, one constant is our reliance on Georgia’s number one industry, agriculture, which has faced challenges of its own. In addition to severe weather and depressed farm gate prices, COVID-19 has disrupted food processors and the supply chain, further hurting the farmer and, in turn, the consumer. Suddenly, cheap, abundant and readily available food that we have always taken for granted became scarce and expensive. This should be a wake-up call to us all. Clearly, our well-being and even survival depends on safe, secure and affordable food. If we want to remain a strong and independent nation, we can’t afford to lose our family farms and rely on foreign sources for our food. Now, more than ever, we need to buy Georgia Grown, whenever possible.
In this issue of Capitol Recap, I’d like to share how Georgia’s agricultural facilities impact our state in profound ways and highlight legislative initiatives that will provide more opportunities for Georgia agriculture. A brief review of the Senate’s recent legislative achievements and budget priorities demonstrates our commitment to agriculture education, production agriculture and agribusiness. From the expansion of our Georgia Grown program, which has placed locally sourced products at both large chain and independent grocery stores throughout the nation, to strategic changes in regulations, and investment in research and development, we continue to be a world leader in ag production and innovation. The importance of agriculture here in Georgia only becomes more apparent when you consider that agriculture contributes roughly $73 billion annually to the state’s economy and employs 1 in 7 Georgians.
One initiative the legislature took this year to expand profit opportunities for Georgia farmers dealing with the pandemic and give them another crop option was the passage of House Bill 847. Related to revising Georgia’s Hemp Farming Act, this bill intends to create a more efficient licensing and processing system for hemp farming permits, while also expanding upon the ability for higher education institutions to conduct research. The introduction of Georgia’s hemp farming policy last year revolutionized the business. For farmers who had crops devastated by Hurricane Michael, it provided them with a new way to make an income and support their families, while still utilizing the land they own. For others, it cultivated new forms of technology, innovation and encouraged creativity. By streamlining the regulations of hemp farming and placing an emphasis on the research aspects, we can ensure that our state continues to lead in the future.
Georgia’s economic developments within the agriculture field, of course, span across all commodities, livestock and timber production. Just as the wise farmer diversifies their operation and rotates their crops, we, as a state, enjoy a diversity of agriculture and forestry industries, which lends economic stability during these turbulent times. One bill related to livestock production is Senate Bill 211, which concerns the appropriate advertising and representation of meat. Through this bill, the definition of “animal” and “food” is clarified, in order to make it unlawful to advertise any meat, beef or pork product that is not at least 90% the by-product of the carcass of a live animal. This, importantly, does two things: one, it eliminates the sale of meat with harmful by-products to help safeguard what we consume and two, it gives added support and recognition to those that deserve it the most – hardworking farmers.
Two other bills associated with boosting our forestry industry are House Bill 777 and House Bill 897. The first bill, HB 777, establishes a one-year timeframe in which the Department of Community Affairs must review the tall mass timber provisions in the 2021 International Building Code and decide if our state minimum standard building codes should be revised. If approved, the use of mass timber in the construction of structures up to 18 stories tall would expand the market for Georgia timber and allow for a safe, locally sourced and potentially lower cost alternative building material. HB 877 relates to logistical changes within the timber industry by providing for a more uniform, statewide timber harvest notification process. With greater consistency within the State Forestry Commission, we can ensure fairness, reduce confusion and improve adherence to logging requirements throughout the state. More generally speaking, though, with these aforementioned bills, we have listened to your concerns both before and during the pandemic to find ways we can keep Georgia growing.
As I’ve stated previously, we made great progress during the 2020 legislative session. However, there is more work to be done and areas that need greater attention. With that, the Senate Coin Operated Amusement Machine (COAM) Study Committee has been doing our due diligence in trying to find the best ways to regulate these machines, while ensuring a fair balance between profits for the industry and Hope Scholarship, and curtailing the rise of criminal activity these machines often attract. I believe the first meeting laid a productive framework for the good work to come. One item worth mentioning is a pilot program testing the use of Georgia Lottery gift cards as a prize, which would hopefully negate the incentive for illegal cash payouts. While this idea is still very much in its infancy, I am optimistic about its potential and I am confident that we will be able to make great strides during the 2021 legislative session related to this and other topics. As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any concerns or insight you have related to our district. It’s a privilege to serve you, and I welcome your input and feedback.