By Arthia Nixon
Lee Powers is the kind of farmer who has respect for the land, a passion for agriculture and is fulfilling what he sees as a mission from God to keep portions of west Georgia rural.
He also sits on the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, representing district 5, a broad swath of territory that wraps from Sandhill to Roopville. It’s an area of cattle farms, chicken houses and hayfields.
“I ran on keeping it agricultural and all for the farmer, and now that I am elected, I promise you, I will keep that all the way through,” said Powers. “I am very passionate about protecting the farmers and these farms in Carroll County. I believe it is something that the Lord has placed on me to do. I think that I am in the position that God would have me in, right now, to do just that.”
With its rolling hills and bright green pastures which could inspire landscape painters, Powers Farm still has some of the smokehouses, barns and cotton seed houses built over 100 years ago. Powers purchased the property from Judy Perdue with the promise that she would be able to live out her lifetime on the property. He wants to eventually have it preserved as a historic site.
Powers is a fifth generation cattle farmer. He raises beef, unlike his grandfathers, who stuck to the dairy side of things. Powers' father, Frank, opted to go into ministry 53 years ago, but spends a great deal of time helping his son with various tasks, like cutting hay and running cows.
On Powers Farm there's no such thing as a “man's job.” Powers’ wife Sandy raises the hens and donates the eggs to the church and community, and he brags that daughter Kendell can handle a tractor better than most. Both of his daughters have asked for plots of land to farm, but he says they are not getting any handouts in the family business.
“They’re going to have to earn it, just like I had to,” he said.
The Powers women's interest in farming comes at a time when the Georgia Field Office of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service predicts more female farmers will be listed in the next major Census, despite a 14 percent decline of total farms in the area.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture ranks Carroll as the seventh largest poultry producer in the state. The county ranks 21st in cattle production. The average age of Carroll County farmers is 60.9, and 462 people listed farming as their primary occupation while another 100 listed farming as a secondary income. The average income per farm is $211,382.
Carroll County had 12,700 beef cows and heifers calved in the most recent reports. By comparison, Coweta’s 2016 cattle inventory stands at 7,900, Douglas is 900, Haralson 5,300, Heard 5,400, Troup 5,700 and Spalding 2,700.
The general decline in farming has not discouraged Powers, who took an old cotton plantation, plus an additional 130 acres in Carroll and Troup counties, to raise his cattle. He is one of those people who feel passionately that commercial and residential development should stay in areas like Carrollton, while the outskirts are left for farming.
“A lot of people say ‘Well Lee, you’ve got to have some development out here in these rural places’ and that may be the truth. But the farmlands need to stay farmlands,” he said. “And I am going to protect this farm 'til the Lord comes.
“There are too many people that come out and say, ‘Well I’m going to buy me this piece of land and I’m going to just cut it up into little pieces,’ and that’s fine. But it will destroy the farmland. I am big on agriculture and I don’t want to mess anything up for the farmers. More people are being born every day and we’ve got to find a way to raise food. If you see a farmer out there today, make sure to thank him, because if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be able to eat in these restaurants and at home right now.”
A few miles away, Haralson County Chamber of Commerce Tourism Coordinator Gail Priest says she faces challenges in trying to brand her county as a agritourism destination.
”Right now we really don’t have anything going on in Haralson,” said Priest. “There is a vineyard (Trillium) hoping to get what it needs for a tasting room within the next year, and hopefully that will come into being. There are several individuals with their vineyards in Haralson County and one person sells his products from Carroll County. I'm not sure if they will go commercial or not but there is definitely potential in that area. Once the tasting room gets complete and up and running, I think individuals in the county will see the possible interest to either join that vineyard or consider their options.”
By having commercial agriculture, Priest says there is nothing that can be done on the retail end to draw tourists.
“That’s the issue with agriculture here at the moment,” she said. “There's no tourism involved for it because things have to be open for tourists or retail. The issue that I have is that it is hard for me to market because (the county has) to have something there. Right now, people can't really go on tours or purchase on-site, even with the apple orchards, so I’m really banking on this wine tasting room because it really is a challenge to advertise agritourism and market it, if there is nothing open for tourists to visit.”
Kevin Livingston, a Douglas County Agriculture & Natural Resources agent for over 10 years with the University of Georgia Extension Service, says farms are pretty limited in that county.
A home gardener himself, he said the focus is to boost more small scale farms, organic farms and small nursery, vegetable and fruit crops. He also works closely with Garden Mentors, a group of UGA extension volunteers whose meetings highlight ways to bring home and school gardens to higher standards.
“We are really working hard to raise agriculture awareness, especially with the school system,” he said. “We partnered with two elementary schools last year, and this year we are looking to get a lot more on board. We have a six-session program where they start by reading books on composting, and over the summer we continued by introducing children to agricultural resources. I'm a fan of small gardening. I think it makes a big difference. I have a 10 x 20 plot at home with a lot of tomatoes and sweet peppers and, to be honest, once you take care of it, you can really generate a good bit of food within a small space.”
While farming cattle or food might be what west Georgia is known for, Angela Pendley – the the only woman in the 3rd District congressional race – is paying close attention to the way the state handles medical marijuana. She says it could lead to a new cash crop for local farmers.
Pendley has degrees in allied health and health science and said that she is also concerned with the way the state is torn over HB 722, also known as the “Medical Marijuana Law.” With 20 years experience in allied health care, she has worked with autistic children and their families.
“I think the medical cannabis bill is something I would like more attention drawn to,” said Pendley. “Children with special needs, others with seizures and people with mental health issues can benefit from cannabis oil and medical marijuana. Also, the state could benefit by allowing us to farm it, and then farmers would have a new crop where billions of dollars could be earned.”
As for Carroll Commissioner Powers, he hopes that whatever steps are made, as long as he can continue to keep the areas rural - and to stand up for those with the same passion he has - he knows the future of his district will be in good hands.