Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Georgia is now referred to as a solidly red state in political terms. However, the state is making a decided turn towards blue. Not (yet) politically, but from a brand image state. Dan Chapman of the Atlanta Journal Constitution has penned a story that hits Georgia down to the pit of our brand image peaches.
Blueberries now account for almost three times as much of Georgia’s agricultural production as our “official” peach crop. Blueberries also continue to expand in production while peaches are shrinking. According to Chapman’s figures, Georgia’s acreage devoted to blueberries more than doubled in the last ten years, from 8,000 to 19,000 acres. Georgia’s acres of peach orchards declined 25% during that same timeframe, dropping from 16,000 acres to 12,000.
It’s not exactly been a secret that Georgia hasn’t been the leader in peach production for decades. Neighboring South Carolina produces almost three times as many, though they seem to be happy being the Palmetto State. Having grown up very near Palmetto Georgia, I’m not sure why that’s how they choose to brand their state, but that’s their choice. California, by the way, totally dwarfs Georgia and South Carolina in peach production, producing more than 20 times Georgia’s total peach output.
This does present a bit of an identity problem for Georgia. We’re third in peach production as well as blueberry production. We are number one in producing chickens, but I doubt there will be any move afoot anytime soon to see “Georgia, the chicken state” on license plates. There’s just something not quite right about that.
We identify as being the Peach State, and that will not likely change anytime soon. The underlying point is that while our image and identity will remain the same, the state in and of itself is changing.
South Georgia farmers have realized that there is opportunity for growing blueberries – and many other crops – based on market conditions and Georgia’s soils and climates. It’s about matching supply and demand. Millions of dollars now flow into the economies of rural Georgia towns because a new market was discovered and is being tapped.
Brand images are nice for marketing purposes and sentimentality. They are not good predictors of market trends nor helpful when attempting to adapt for the future.
Much more is changing about our state than just our cash crops. The past three decades have provided a massive population shift with most Georgian’s concentrated in metro Atlanta. While agriculture is not an overriding industry in Atlanta and its suburbs, the brand image is changing up here in my part of the state too.
Atlanta sold itself as a low cost of living, high quality of life region for most of my lifetime. Jobs were considered plentiful, and our industries of banking, logistics, and construction insulated us from recessions.
Today, the region faces gridlock, land costs have risen to the point that we’re much closer to national averages in costs of living (and ahead of most of our southern competition), and the core industries which used to provide limitless employment have been stagnant at best for half a decade.
Atlanta, and the state as a whole, is at a turning point. We can choose to be stuck on brands and self-images that served us well in the past, or we can have an honest discussion about who we are now, and what our honest strengths and weaknesses are as a state.
We aren’t going to grow based on cheap land. Quality of life will not be a drawing card without sufficient infrastructure to support the state’s population. Industries of tomorrow will not relocate without the education and training available for a workforce that can supply the skills needed to supply labor.
Peaches represent a Georgia that we all know and love. Understanding that peaches don’t represent the future – and figuring out what will – is key to Georgia remaining peachy for decades to come. It’s no time to be chicken.