With all this growing, for some, labor remains an obstacle. Last year, shortages were highlighted as a key challenge by many in the Georgia produce industry. Shuman notes, “We did not feel the effects of labor shortages this year, though it remains an issue of concern to the industry.”
“We haven’t felt the labor shortages here at Nickey Gregory,” agrees Scott. “In Atlanta, there are plenty of labor options.” He notes, however, this may not be the case throughout the state. “As for farmers, that may be a different story.”
Thornton concurs, noting there aren’t shortages around the market, but for some jobs there is an “issue trying to find people who are qualified.” This is more of an industrywide problem for produce companies, as many tend to struggle when recruiting young talent to the business.
Another challenge for a produce gateway like Georgia is the role of food safety regulations. This can be particularly vexing when it comes to imports and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s increasingly stringent requirements, prompted by the Food Safety Modernization Act. A number of proposed rules are under review, with various implementation timelines coming up.
“The United States has stricter food safety and import guidelines for other countries,” Scott says, noting, “importers must be sure they’re bringing in high quality and up-to-code product or they may face serious consequences.”
Many exporters are embracing the changes, however, due to the surging demand for year-round fresh produce, and consumers looking to expand their palettes with exotic fruits and vegetables from other countries. Georgia’s ports and inland waterways are busy and doing well, employing 350,000 and contributing nearly $67 billion to the state’s annual economy. With plans underway for the Savannah Harbor’s expansion, Georgia will become an even bigger player in international trade.
Broadly, 2015 should finish as a banner year for Georgia’s growers-shippers, wholesalers, and retailers. Exports of the Peach State’s agricultural output, including its famous peaches, blueberries, and Vidalia onions, are up and analysts believe they will continue to climb.
It’s more than macro trends that matter, however. Thornton knows that to keep business strong, keeping customers happy is essential to short- and long-term success. “It all both short- and long-term boils down to customer service—you’ve got to keep people coming back and helping to bring new customers in by word of mouth.”
Yes, the Peach State has promising pro-spects with lower gas prices shaving transportation costs, climbing demand for fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and hope-fully, moderate weather. But as everyone in the perishables industry knows and Scott quips, “each year is different when Mother Nature is involved!”