ALBANY — Officials with the Southwest Georgia Project, an agriculture-based nonprofit, asked the Dougherty County Commission Monday to resume control of land “abandoned” by the state of Georgia so that the collective could move forward with plans to create a processing center at the old State Farmers Market property at Gaines Avenue and Oakridge Drive.
The proposed Fresh Cut Processing Center would give area farmers a place to sell their produce, which would, in turn, be used to provide nutritious and fresh meal alternatives to area school systems.
“Agriculture is a $7 billion industry in Georgia,” Daaiyah Salaam with the Southwest Georgia Project told commissioners. “Unfortunately, the largest majority of that money goes to cash crops, which essentially leaves the small farmer out of the loop. This project will close the gap between small farmers and institutions that can use their products.”
Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said that while there are “a number of things that must be put into motion” before the project becomes a reality, he sees it as a positive for the community and for area school systems.
“Those folks in the schools are having the same budget issues we are,” Sinyard said. “With the right business plan in place, I can see this being a benefit for them especially.
“But there are three issues that are critical for this to work: the quantity of farmers — the numbers must be in place — the quality of the products, and the competitiveness. They’d have to meet the price points and offer competitive prices.”
Commissioner Jack Stone said he favored the proposal, but said officials would need to make sure farmers grew certain crops for processing to meet the needs of schools in the area.
“We’ve already talked with 12 school systems in our region about the things they’d want and need,” Salaam said.
County Administrator Richard Crowdis said he’s made initial contact with State Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, about the possibility of returning the “7 or 8 acres” of property where the State Farmers Market once stood to the county after the state “abandoned” it recently.
“The state does not deal with nonprofits, so for the county to lease this property to the Southwest Georgia Project, the state would have to return ownership,” Crowdis said. “That can only be done through the General Assembly, so it would probably be June or July before we could retain ownership.”
Salaam said the Southwest Georgia Project is working with consultants to complete a plan to enlarge the 3,000-square-foot facility into a covered, 10,000-square-foot processing center that would provide educational opportunities for school children and for farmers.
Commissioner Gloria Gaines said Shirley Sherrod’s involvement with the Southwest Georgia Project gives the proposal credibility.
“I think the prospects for this project are very good; I know it’s worked in New Orleans,” Gaines said. “Shirley’s history adds a tremendous amount of credibility to the project.”
Sherrod said she’d hoped to have the proposal further along, but that her group would utilize the additional time for training.
“I’d hoped the timeline for this project would not be as long, but the additional time gives us an opportunity to do more training,” she said. “We’ve already started work on getting the farmers ready.”