As the largest single segment of Georgia’s economy, agriculture plays an important role in the state’s international trade, but the agriculture community remains “cautiously optimistic” about United States free trade agreements, said Gary Black, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, who recently announced he is running for Georgia commissioner of agriculture in 2006.

“People are cautiously optimistic about free trade agreements like Cafta. Some say, ‘Cafta rhymes with Nafta, and I didn’t like Nafta, so maybe I won’t like Cafta,’ but the two agreements are very different,” Mr. Black told GlobalAtlanta in an interview last week.

Some agribusiness leaders felt that Nafta was more beneficial for Mexico and Canada than for the U.S. because the U.S. was not vigilant enough on enforcement of the treaty’s provisions, including the other countries’ inspection standards for agricultural products, he said.

But Cafta represents an immediate benefit to Georgia agriculture exporters by reducing or eliminating tariffs on U.S. agricultural products sold to Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The forest products and poultry industries are particularly pleased, Mr. Black noted.

He cautioned, however, that the U.S. must protect and advance the interests of American farmers when negotiating free trade agreements.

“Free trade is wonderful, but we must be able to hold our trading partners to the deal… Food and regulatory systems in other countries are not like ours. Is it really free trade if the playing field is not level in terms of labor and environmental standards?” he said.

And because of growing apprehension among domestic consumers about food security, Georgia farmers are apt to see increasing market opportunities for food produced locally rather than abroad, Mr. Black asserted.

He added, however, that the benefits of free trade, including Cafta, outweigh its costs to Georgia’s agribusiness industry.

Poultry is a big winner with Cafta, Mr. Black noted, as phasing out tariffs on chicken leg quarters bound for Central America means an extra $27 million per year for Georgia poultry exporters. Free trade is generally good for the state’s poultry industry because it opens markets for parts of the bird that Americans typically do not eat, he added. Poultry is the largest agriculture segment in Georgia, and Georgia is the leading poultry producer in the country.

Georgia cotton producers estimate that Cafta’s elimination of tariffs on U.S. cotton exports will result in $748 million in revenue for Georgia companies. Apparel made in Cafta countries from U.S. textiles and yarn can be shipped to the U.S. duty-free, a provision some Georgia textiles companies say will protect U.S. textile jobs and provide an alternative to Chinese imports.

Sustained windfalls for Georgia agriculture, however, depend on a strong national farm policy that provides safety nets for Georgia producers, Mr. Black said. Farmers in Georgia would like to see every dime of their revenues coming from the marketplace, he asserted, but with other countries receiving substantial government supports for agriculture production, Georgians need some support as well to keep the playing field level, he said.

Such issues will require Georgia’s agriculture community to keep in close contact with Washington, Mr. Black said, adding that he plans to promote increased communication about agricultural issues with Georgia congressional delegates and federal officials over the coming year.

Mr. Black, who has worked with the Georgia Agribusiness Council for 16 years, has begun a statewide campaign to be elected state agriculture commissioner in 2006. He will serve in his current position until the end of the year, when he will take a leave of absence to campaign full-time. Mr. Black, along with Bob Greer, Brian Kemp and Deanna Strickland, is seeking the Republican nomination, while incumbent commissioner Tommy Irvin will seek the Democratic nomination.

According to Mr. Black, agribusiness is a $60 billion industry in Georgia, representing 16 percent of the gross state product and 16 percent of the state’s employment base. Farm production of agricultural products amounts to $10 billion, and the other $50 billion is generated by value-added services for the supplying of inputs, processing, marketing and distribution of those products. More than $1 billion of Georgia agricultural products were exported in 2004, which is an increase of $130 million since 2000, he said.

Since 1966, the Georgia Agribusiness Council has represented the agribusiness industry in legislative issues, provided economic services to its members, promoted agribusiness development and promoted agricultural education.

For more information, visit or contact Mr. Black at (800) 726-2474.