What blueberries, broiler chickens and pecans have in common: They’re No. 1 in Georgia crops

Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper feeds a calf on his family farm in Ocilla. (Credit: Georgia Dept of Ag)

Mar 19, 2024

It almost didn’t happen. 

Yet, in 1874, Georgia Gov. James Smith's approval and House Speaker Augustus Bacon’s tie-breaking vote led to the creation of the nation’s first state — and now oldest — department of agriculture.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Early on, the department produced a handbook about Georgia's soil conditions, and distributed seeds. It researched insects and warned the public about plant pests. It also diagnosed and reported on diseases affecting grains, fruit and crops, analyzed fertilizer and doled out information to citizens about the dairy and wool industries, and raising sheep.

Now, 150 years later, the $74 billion agribusiness is Georgia’s No. 1 industry, employing 1 in 7 Georgians. The state is consistently No. 1 in the country in the production of peanuts, broiler chickens, pecans, blueberries and spring onions.  

And the 550-person ag agency’s role has evolved beyond agriculture and farming. It’s now more of a regulatory agency that also oversees  gas pumps, grocery stores, pet breeders and just about everything in between.

The agriculture department’s fiscal year 2024 budget of $73.3 million consists of $61.7 million in state funds and another $11.57 million in federal funds.

The 16 agriculture commissioners who’ve served over the past 150 years helped shape Georgia’s political and business landscape. Some went on to become governor of Georgia or stake pivotal positions in the federal agriculture department.  Most of the ag commissioners who’ve served, including current commissioner Tyler Harper, have backgrounds in farming or agriculture. Georgia is one of only a dozen states that still elects its ag commissioner. 

“While the size, scope, and mission of the department have evolved tremendously over the past 150 years, our commitment to serving the people of Georgia and supporting our state’s #1 industry has never wavered,” Harper said. 

More than peaches and chicks

Farming is more than just growing crops and raising livestock. Today, an intricate, high-tech network of processing, marketing and distribution moves agricultural commodities from the farm to the consumer.

Agriculture remains important to Georgia’s economy and the nation’s well-being so much so that state lawmakers this legislative session have introduced bills to ensure that Georgia farmland does not fall into the wrong hands as more U.S. farmland continues to be purchased by foreign companies and individuals. The bills intend to keep land from countries deemed by the federal government to be enemies of the United States.

“We're protecting our agricultural interest,” Harper recently told State Affairs. “At the end of the day, agriculture's national security — ensuring that we're protecting our food, fiber and shelter supply is vital and important.”

Georgia’s top 10 commodities are: broilers, cotton, eggs, timber, peanuts, beef, greenhouse, dairy, pecans and blueberries.

“From the food on our plates to the shirts on our backs and the shelter over our heads, agriculture is one of the few industries that impacts all 11 million Georgians every single day,” said Harper. “Our team at the department is working every day to make agriculture more sustainable, more efficient, and more profitable to ensure the continued success of Georgia’s farmers and farm families for generations to come.”

Georgia Ag Week activities

Georgia is marking its 150th anniversary this year with a year full of activities, including this week’s Georgia Agricultural Awareness week. Go here, to find out the activities set for this week. 

For more information on the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s history, go here and here. For a brief look at the history of American agriculture, go here.


Have questions? Contact Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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