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View from Ground Level

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Chamber Strategically Targets Six Sites for Meetings in the Field

The Toombs-Montgomery Chamber of Commerce held its February meeting down on the farm.

The chamber’s board of directors and members were guests of Chris Hopkins at his farm off of Marvin Church Road in the rolling Toombs County countryside on February 25. It was all part of the chamber’s objective of getting to know its membership better and fine-tuning its approach to promoting and supporting area business and industry.

Hopkins shared his story as guests enjoyed lunch in the farm’s Pond House. “My wife and I are transplants, but we took root here,” he quipped as he outlined the journey that brought him to the area. With undergraduate and continued from page

graduate degrees from the University of Georgia, Hopkins came to the area as a county extension agent. “We fell in love with the community and decided this was the place we wanted to raise a family.”

Hopkins currently farms about 1400 acres of row crops—cotton, peanuts, corn, wheat and watermelon. He also manages the local John Deere dealership which has 20 employees. The dealership is a member of the chamber (as Lasseter Implement) and Mrs. Hopkins’ place of employment, Altamaha EMC, is also a chamber member. Farming has come a long way since this country was founded as an agrarian society, and agriculture is more important than ever in the everyday lives of citizens and in the commerce of the nation. With over $74 billion in economic impact every year, agribusiness is Georgia’s leading industry. The Georgia Farm Bureau notes that 9.9 million acres of operating farmland in the state produce over 399,200 jobs in food, fiber products and related industries. Georgia is the nation’s top producer of broilers, hatching eggs, peanuts, pecans, blueberries, and spring onions. It is one also of the country’s top producers of cotton, watermelons, peaches, cucumbers, sweet corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupes, rye and cabbage. The major agricultural region in the state is the Coastal Plains—in which Toombs and Montgomery counties are located—an area famous for the Vidalia Onion. “My grandfather said, ‘Your generation will see more families in agriculture than the generations before and after and those to come.’ In his generation he followed a mule and plowed a couple of acres of land in the course a day. Today, we run computerized, 250-horsepower tractors with such GPS accuracy that we can drive a line and come back five years later and follow that line with less than one inch of precision.”

Hopkins said that with today’s technology, farming is infinitely more efficient and productive. A cell phone can relay messages to computerized machines essentially eliminating the need for manpower so fewer people can accomplish more tasks. Hopkins specialized in crop science for his undergraduate degree but focused on “weeds, insects and disease” in his master’s studies. He sees the future farmer as “technology savvy” with the ability to embrace a variety of disciplines to problem solve and be successful.

“Farming has changed from predominantly hands-on to touch screen,” he explained. “There are still 90- hour weeks where the farmer gets his hands dirty. There is still that part of it,” he said, noting today’s farmer also must have the ability to understand soil science, herbicide and insecticide application, how to irrigate with computerized equipment, and how to link up with cooperatives to integrate and market products, among many other skills depending on what the farmer is producing, from row crops to cattle to trees. As he spoke to the chamber attendees, Hopkins held up a five-pound bag of specialized seed, noting it cost over $500. The seed was formulated specifically to target caterpillars that attack corn. It also contained an herbicide. “People may be worried about the herbicide, but this seed is actually safer because we used to have to spray over the top of the crop four times during the growing cycle.” He compared the cost of the highly-efficient corn seed with the seed his grandfather bought by the ton. “He paid $20 for a 50 pound bag.”

Today’s agriculture is being updated at an almost dizzying pace. Most consumers are unaware at how sophisticated the industry has become and they don’t have a clue how the corn they buy in the grocery store was produced, but they want to learn. Hopkins said he has had numerous requests from residents and visitors to the area to watch harvesting at his farm. Growing interest in the process of farming has not gone unnoticed by area chambers of commerce which are supporting agri-tourism as a viable industry. “We have to remove the stigma associated with farming. Yes, people see it as a noble profession, but it is much more sophisticated and precise now.” Letting consumers get an up close look at the science of farming is one way of influencing perceptions about the vital importance of the industry.

Hopkins emphasized, “Farming is imperative to our national security. If you think depending on foreign oil is scary, wait until we have to depend on foreign food. We have the safest, cheapest most dependable food source in the world.”

He added, “Ninety- eight percent of this country’s farms are family owned. The change I see ahead is the size of these farms increasing. The family unit is the primary basis for American agriculture.”

The meeting Hopkins hosted at his Toombs County farm is among six locations targeted by the chamber board for meetings this year. In addition to agri-business, the board also strategically targeted manufacturing, health care, small retail businesses, education and the restaurant industry.

“Fifty percent of our board meetings will be held in the field at these businesses,” said Steven McComas, President of the Chamber. “This is not just an effort to showcase these businesses but a deliberate action taken by our board to see what is on the ground level so the chamber can be more effective in the implementation of its three strategic priorities for 2021,” McComas explained. These priorities are:

• e REACH initia tive which provides programs and services to market businesses through the chamber’s “Business Expo,” “Showcasing ToombsMontgomery,” and “ConnectHer,” as well as a business summit coming in the fall of 2021 which is a regional effort sponsored with Chick-fil-A of Vidalia; • To help existing busi nesses grow and facilitate new business start ups; • And, leveraging the

existing Vidalia global brand to attract customers to the area businesses on a regional, state and national level.

“The Toombs-Montgomery Chamber of Commerce represents a region stretching from Santa Claus to Lyons to Vidalia and Mount Vernon. We are laser focused as an advocate, supporter, and facilitator of local business. Our stakeholders are our members,” McComas said. “One of the things we have a responsibility to do is to understand what our members are doing and what they need from the chamber board.”

He referenced the concept of continuous improvement. “The ‘Go and See’ principle is about actually understating what happens in an organization and incorporating the realization that decisions based on indirect information such as reports and presentations are not the best decisions you can make.” He added that actually going and seeing the real situation first hand results in the ability to better assess opportunities and to make more informed decisions.

“As a chamber representing a regional area, it is our duty to get a more ground level understanding of what our members need from their chamber and the best way to do that is to deploy this proven global principle—by going out and holding monthly meetings at six targeted industries and businesses that hold membership within the chamber. This will allow us to bring back information to make better policy decisions and to provide more precise services and support.”

He noted, “Chris Hopkins represents the future of one of our most important industries, agribusiness. We need to support current and future farmers as a matter of national security.” He also stressed that the chamber and the community need to encourage youth to continue educational efforts in the field of math, science and the social sciences in order to better prepare future farmers to compete on a globallevel. “We no longer just need folks riding tractors, but folks who can calculate and run technology more efficiently to allow farms to compete at a global level. We were honored Chris allowed us to hold our meeting at his farm and we will take our learning from this visit as we implement the chamber’s three strategic priorities.”

“As a chamber representing a regional area, it is our duty to get a more ground level understanding of what our members need from their chamber …

— Steven McComas, President, Toombs-Montgomery Chamber of Commerce

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