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IGA President: U.S., Georgia Ag Leadership ‘On The Right Journey’

Georgia Ag panel

Last updated on June 14th, 2024 at 10:42 am

“They’re on the right journey,” John Ross, president and CEO of IGA, said following his participation on a panel featuring U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper. 

Ross, Vilsack and Harper were three of the 15-person panel featured in the USDA’s More, New & Better Markets Stakeholder Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, on Aug. 23. The event brought together various stakeholders from across the agricultural supply chain, including producers, wholesalers, independent grocers and financiers. 

Before the open panel discussion, Vilsack gave a presentation on the USDA’s efforts to improve market access for stakeholders. These included highlighting investments from the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act that “help strengthen our food system by providing farmers, processors, aggregators, schools and market opportunities and bring prosperity to rural and urban America.”

Vilsack highlighted key programs that aim to improve the ability for farmers to get their product to market at a lower cost. Key takeaways included setting up local and regional programs to connect producers with local entities like retailers, school systems and smaller distributors; taking advantage of greener farming practices, in turn providing a new revenue stream; and utilizing USDA education programs to connect stakeholders with appropriate grants, loans or other funding. 

During the panel discussion, Ross gave what Vilsack referred to as an “impassioned speech” where Ross emphasized the importance of connecting individuals with fresh food and the importance grocers play in that role. 

“When that is happening, the collective health of that community is measurable…It decreases money in transportation, making things fresher and healthier, and makes a collective economic health effect. When that grocery store fails, we see small towns across America deteriorate…The incident of disease is calculable. The amount of disease states are all measurable. So the solution is, open more stores. Well, why doesn’t it happen? Why don’t the big corporate grocers…why aren’t they there? That’s because the tyranny of the quarterly report.”

He said that many larger grocers have attempted to open stores in smaller communities but ultimately fail, even with smaller concepts or specialty stores. 

“That’s when IGA buys them,” Ross said with a laugh. 

He said that investing in these communities will not only improve the lives of individuals but will also improve communities as a whole. 

“The health of the community where we spend a dollar today may be $50 in the future…This is where family businesses thrive. This is where you connect a small producer and small retailer. Connecting family businesses will make friends for generations.”

He referenced the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Georgia Grown division. The program aims to grow local agribusinesses across the state. 

“So if you want to know how our dollars are doing, investing in small businesses in these communities, providing funds to have retailers be successful, to take risks, bring them together with these small producers so that family farmers and family retailers can work together more effectively,” he said. 

Vilsack responded that the USDA’s initiatives, while not directly targeted at retailers, will benefit them. 

“I’d say we’d made the down payment, if you will, John, with the Healthy Food Financing Initiative,” Vilsack said. “One hundred and thirty-five million dollars have been made available to help create more of those independently-owned grocery stores that do provide healthy food. We obviously need to do more.”

When given the opportunity, many panelists spoke to Vilsack of the troubles currently affecting stakeholders. Common grievances among the panel included a lack of transparency, slow response times, lack of educational resources and a disconnect between programs and the community.

Following the event, Ross shared his thoughts on the USDA’s system, how it’s affecting retailers and how he sees independent retailers improving going forward. 

He first spoke to the USDA’s efforts to entice farmers to embrace green practices. Under the new plan, producers can receive grant money for adopting these practices or, in some cases, create renewable energy which can then be sold back to power companies.

“They’re on the right journey,” Ross said. “He’s using set asides at the national level attached to the right strategic clauses that I’m very impressed by…You’re not going to want your farm apparatus to be subject to the random whims of commodity energy market…The way you do that is invest in sustainable energy resources, which the farmer can take advantage of…That is smart. That is strategic. You want to invest in subsidy programs to ensure that both retailers and farmers are able to meet supply, demand in urban or extreme rural markets.” 

Ross then spoke to the USDA’s efforts to make its programs easier to access. Many of the producers on the panel cited this as their main grievance.

“As with any governmental organization, awareness of the programs and understanding the qualifications to those funds is arcane. If I were to ask for one thing…they need an advertising agent. They need help making it more visible, easier to understand vetting process. You need to understand how to go get those funds and make the application process way less onerous.”

He also mentioned the Georgia Grown program and its benefits for retailers. 

“IGA is working with Georgia Grown almost like their advertising agent…to bring that message into the stores, very pragmatically. To take the farmer’s story, their picture, the description of the farm, bring that sign into the store and put it on display…When you make that happen, sales go through the roof, producers are happy, the retailers are happy.”

Ross said IGA is using Georgia as a “prototype,” with the idea that working alongside the Georgia Grown program and other government agencies within the state will lead to improved retailer-to-consumer relationships. 

“We will take and go state by state by state…We’re also working with the city of Atlanta to help provide education, training and development resources for existing independent retailers to make them stronger. And then to create a recruiting program for entrepreneurs to invest in stores that are basically food deserts…We believe IGA can help turn all those programs into something simple…These funds will help them to be more educated, to keep stores open and be profitable. And how to connect with suppliers that will allow you to have a differentiated product.”

Finally, Ross spoke to the panel’s overall sense of “let down.” Many panelists felt there was little interaction with local representatives – a problem felt particularly in rural areas. Ross said these problems stem from a “lack of community.”

Read more original content features from The Shelby Report.

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