By Ken Denney

In the mid-1870s, John Shadinger, a farmer in Carroll County, built a wall.

It was a pretty good wall, too, made of rocks, stacked up without any mortar, eight feet high and running several hundred yards along what is today U.S. 27.

But he didn’t build it just to show off his rock-stacking skills. This was an act of protest.

For years just after the Civil War, cattlemen had been letting their livestock roam freely over the open range. There were no fences to keep the animals within pastures; the animals grazed wherever they wanted.

This was inconvenient to railroad companies, whose locomotives were killing animals that ranged across their tracks. The railroads had to pay farmers for their dead cows, and the cost of those payouts was passed along to wholesalers in town.

In 1873, businessmen and railroads began pushing for a fence law, to force farmers to pen in their animals. This was the first time – ever – that any government had dared to tell farmers what to do. And the farmers fought back.

Shadinger sided with his fellow farmers, and built his rock wall to protect his row crops so that his neighbors’ cows could keep on grazing as they had always done. Meanwhile, the farmers waged a political war, fighting would-be regulators who had put their economic interests over the farmer’s way of life.

Shadinger’s wall stood for nearly 50 years, until it was torn down in 1934 when Highway 27 was widened and paved. Ultimately, the farmers found they could not build walls against progress. Commerce, represented by the streams of trucks and traffic on the highway, won out – and commerce is still winning.

Demand for a rural lifestyle

Today, Shadinger’s home is a tumbledown ruin along a four-lane highway that is a major corridor from Columbus through Carrollton, part of a road network that links to Georgia’s interstates. Trucks haul all sorts of products along these thoroughfares, blasting through once peaceful farmland.

The farms and rolling pasturelands of west Georgia have been slowly disappearing for the last 50 years. These acres were once a heritage; handed down to sons and daughters and grandchildren. Yet increasingly, descendants of these farm families have been moving away. With no use for their family farms, they have sold their birthright to developers and builders.

But the rural lifestyle they have rejected is a prime consideration for the new residents moving into west Georgia at a rapid clip. In fact, those in charge of promoting the area to new industries make the area’s peaceful, pastoral setting a major selling point.

And farming still hasn’t gone away. West Georgia is still a major producer of cattle and poultry, and those two economic sectors are in competition with retail and industry to power the region’s economy.

That sets up a tension between three various interests: a battle for living space, working space and farming space. And there’s only so much land to go around.

Carroll County, twice the size of both Haralson and Douglas counties, also has more of its acreage in farmland. More than 26 percent of Carroll’s 504 square miles – 85,926 acres – is listed as farmland in the 2012 Census of Agriculture. That’s compared to 16 percent of Haralson County’s 283 square miles, and 6.5 percent of Douglas County’s 201 square miles.

That is a lot of land to be sure, but the land supports more than cattle, row crops, chicken houses and hayfields. It also supports 284,000 people – and so the available land for farming is in competition for land for homes, for schools, for stores and for places of employment.

How to share the finite space between industry, retail and residential – and still leave room to maintain a vital agricultural and farming economy is a conundrum that vexes our political and economic leadership.

"Dynamic balance"

Daniel Jackson, president and CEO of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, calls this a “dynamic balance.” And the secret of maintaining that balance is to plan growth along the natural corridors, i.e., roadways, that already have the infrastructure that industry needs – and to leave other parts of the county alone.

“The goal is not to plow up everything and convert it to parking lots and retail or industry or whatever,” he said. “We want to treasure and protect the very things that are important to this community. At the same time we want to have a healthy community.”

It would be foolish for anyone to think industry would not continue to grow, given the needs of Georgia to maintain its economic foothold in the global community. But Jackson knows this can be difficult for those who want to maintain their rural lifestyle.

“We humans want to say, ‘I want to come to Carroll County because it’s the coolest place – but shut the gate behind me, because I don’t want other people to come here to mess it up.”

Yet the grim truth is, Jackson said, “you’re either growing, or you’re dying.”

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce reckons that to stay competitive in the nation, the state must grow its economy by 40 percent by 2030. That includes adding 1.9 million more people to hold down 1 million new jobs, and the state must also be prepared to produce 16 percent more energy than it currently does.

Carroll County now supports 6,709 jobs in manufacturing, which is now the county’s leading industry. With 120 manufacturing establishments in place, planners expect that number to jump 8.1 percent by 2021.

Andy Camp, vice president of economic development for the Carroll chamber, says that despite this increasing reliance on industry and manufacturing in the county, planners have to accommodate agriculture, which supports – in one way or another – one out of every five jobs.

“You don’t put at risk an agrarian community,” Camp said. “We all need to eat.”

Agribusiness in west Georgia

When John Shadinger and his neighbors were farming in the 1870s, cotton was the number-one agricultural product in west Georgia. By the 21st century however, cotton has disappeared with the textile industry, as has corn, soybeans and other crops. But the region remains an agricultural powerhouse, thanks to livestock.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 9.6 million broilers and other chickens were raised under Carroll County’s chicken houses, and another 2.7 million chickens were raised in Haralson County.

The market value of crop and livestock sales in Carroll County was $192 million in 2012 and $42 million in Haralson. And although Douglas County is far behind its sisters in agriculture, it sold over $1 million of farm products that year.

A more accurate term for this economic sector is “agribusiness,” which encompasses a much wider diversity of farm-related activities. Not only are we raising cows and chickens, we’re also increasingly making home-grown products like artisanal cheeses and organic-based products. And the region is becoming known as a wine-producer, thanks to the re-discovery of grape varieties that have since produced award-winning wines.

Even as Georgia works to focus its educational system on producing skilled future-employees for high-tech and manufacturing industries, the state continues to foster agribusiness, because it is valuable. All the various aspects contributing to agribusiness – timber, retail and equipment sales and manufacture – add $71 billion to the state’s economy.

According to the annual Farm Gate Value Report, there are only about 45,000 farms in the state. Yet they are growing in acreage and, through technology, are producing higher yields. As a result, Georgia is keeping pace with its agricultural needs, even as fewer people are taking up the farming life.

Planning the future

Within the past decade, Carroll County has seen a tremendous growth in population; a 23 percent increase since the 2000 Census, and that population is expected to double by 2030.

But Douglas County has experienced explosive growth. The Census reports a 7.5 percent population increase since 2010, with the unincorporated area more than doubling since 1980. And the county expects the area outside Douglasville to increase by 148 percent by 2025.

All county and city officials in west Georgia agree that the primary reason people move here is the quality of life. We are, it seems, the perfect distance from Atlanta; close enough to drive in for concerts and nights on the town, but far enough away to escape the traffic and other headaches associated with big-city living.

But when large masses of people escape the city, they bring big-city expectations with them. And those expectations include access to major retailers, restaurants, recreational facilities and other conveniences. Their employers want that too; it’s a major part of their recruitment.

Yet the fact is, without controls on growth, a rural area like west Georgia, with its inviting open spaces and rich landscape, can quickly become indistinguishable from the crowded cities those folks are escaping.

One way counties avoid this fate is by formulating what is called a “comprehensive plan” that establishes their vision for the future, and how they should guide future growth. Each of west Georgia’s counties has formulated such a comprehensive plan; in fact, each county is due to update those plans by next year.

All three counties are working to preserve their rural, agricultural lands even as they prepare for an expected growth in industry and manufacturing, not to mention new residents and all the stores and other service amenities they will require.

Learning from mistakes

Douglas County’s explosive growth over the past decade has been an objective lesson for community planners.

Chris Pumphrey, executive director of the Douglas County Economic Development Authority, acknowledges that the rapid expansion, followed by an almost immediate economic downturn, created a lot of unplanned growth.

“We didn’t do a lot of deep planning in the past,” he said. “But we’re really diving deep into these areas and doing our best to fix some of the challenges. There’s going to have to be some tough decisions going forward, but I think we have the right leadership in place to help us get there.”

Douglas County is smaller than Carroll, so it literally has little room for mistakes. The eastern part of the county is denser; the west is more rural, and that’s the way it needs to stay, Pumphrey said, to protect the county’s only water resources.

The county’s “Sweetwater Master Plan,” which will be added to the county’s revised comprehensive plan, envisions of way of allowing the industrial area growing around Sweetwater State Park to live in harmony with the residents who live nearby – people who were attracted to Douglas County in the first place because of its rural location.

Planners in Carroll and Haralson county want to avoid whatever mistakes Douglas County made, and wish to follow the example the county is now setting in righting the ship.

“Everyone won’t be happy,” Pumphrey said. “But we can at least say we have a plan that found the middle ground.”

Change is going to come

For those who grew up in west Georgia, and who did so back in the days of quiet, family farms, it is tough to see those farms disappear. Many acres have been subdivided and sold off by family members who live far away, or whose livelihood does not depend on agriculture.

The farmland that once surrounded John Shadinger’s stone fence in the 1870s has long since passed down to his descendants, most of whom have sold that land. The nature of the area seems destined for change.

Yet those who plan out the future of west Georgia’s counties know that rural farmlands must remain part of the future, just as these fields are part of the past, because farming, or agribusiness, will always be an important component of the region’s economy.

Persuading the owners of those properties to make an investment in that future – and not simply sell for a quick buck – is, Pumphrey says, “a touchy topic.”

On the one hand, he said, “you have a property owner’s rights, and ‘this is what I want to do with my property.’ Can you truly deny them their rights? But you also have those who don’t own the property, but who would be affected by whatever goes there.”

As Carroll County’s Jackson said, there is a “dynamic tension” among competing interests.

But there’s another interest at the table, a party without a voice. Those who will come after this generation also have a stake in the future of west Georgia’s farmlands, and no one can predict what they will have to say.

“We’ve got to accept the fact that change is going to come,” Pumphrey said. “We’ve got to understand that there are generations behind us who are going to be in our community, they may want that development and may think completely different.”

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