July 30, 2008

Salmonella Scare Cost Farmers Here $2.2 Million

By Dwain Walden, The Moultrie Observer, Ga.

Jul. 30--MOULTRIE -- It's often said that perception is reality. And for Colquitt County's tomato crop this summer, such perception was measured by a $2.2 million loss because of the salmonella scare.

As it turned out, the salmonella issue was traced back to jalapeno peppers as opposed to tomatoes as health officials originally thought.

"But people were scared to eat tomatoes. It wasn't a problem after all, but perception is reality," said Glenn Beard, University of Georgia Extension agent.

The spring tomato crop is now history. So what about the fall tomato crop in Colquitt County?

Beard said growers are going full steam ahead "just like they normally would do."

Colquitt County's farm scene is intensely diversified with vegetables accounting for a large part of farm revenues. And that segment is also greatly diversified with a wide range of vegetables. This week, growers are beginning their fall crops of squash, peppers, eggplants and cabbage.

Even though the salmonella culprit was eventually linked to jalapeno peppers out of Mexico, it did have a small impact on the pepper crop here in Colquitt County. But to a much lesser extent than tomatoes, said Beard.

Vegetables are a very perishable crop and marketing these commodities must be a finely tuned process. The markets have a tight window of opportunity. A work force (mainly migrant labor) must be available on that day to harvest. You can't store peppers and tomatoes like you can grains, cotton and peanuts.

Thus, when something like the salmonella scare is added to an already volatile mix of variables, disaster is almost assured.

Almost all vegetables are grown under irrigation. That way farmers have more control in hitting the market window as well as controlling diseases.

Still, the sporadic rains have benefited vegetable production by restoring some holding ponds that serve irrigation units.

As for row crops, much of those are also under irrigation but there are many dryland crops as well.

The rains that have come recently have been spotty. It might rain two inches in one section of the county and farmers five miles down the road might not get a drizzle.

"For instance, on Monday there was almost three inches of rain in the Hamilton area and hardly a drop in the Hartsfield area," said Brown.

An area near Roundtree Bridge outside of Ellenton has gone 52 days without any measurable rain, Brown noted. And north and east of Ellenton, there have been more than 10 inches of rain in spots over the past three weeks.

At the moment, peanuts appear to be in good shape. And corn has already made what it is going to make, said Brown.

Corn is making somewhat of a comeback due to higher prices. This year there are about 6,000 acres planted to corn when just a decade ago there were less than 2,000 acres. Cotton and peanuts had pretty much pushed corn to the back burner prior to now.

Some of the increased corn acreage is said to be linked to energy issues, particularly the manufacture of ethanol. The higher price of fertilizer will help determine if that acreage continues to grow. Wheat is also seeing increased acreage locally. A side product to the wheat grain is the hay, which is used primarily as ground cover at road construction sites to hold topsoil until grass seeds can come up. As a livestock feed, wheat hay has very little nutrition value.


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