An effort is underway to make Georgia the so-called "Silicon Valley of agriculture" with a "Grand Farm" planned for the central Georgia city of Perry. That farm would, in partnership with UGA, be a proving ground for the newest farming technology, including artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetic research. GPB’s Peter Biello spoke with Perry native Georgia state Sen. Larry Walker about the Grand Farm.



Sen. Larry Walker: The idea came to me when I was at the AG Expo in Moultrie, Ga., and was looking at some research plots they had ... down there, and the conversation came up that they did not have the acreage or anything on a larger scale that they needed to really prove out some of the things they were trying to do. And naturally, being from Perry and very familiar with the ag center we have there, being on the overview committee, I immediately thought about the 250 acres across the street from the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agri Center and thought that would be an ideal place for it. And so I went to work, with the governor's office and with the dean at the University of Georgia College of AG, Nick Place, and the wheels started turning. And the governor committed to this idea and was excited about it and put the money in the budget to get it started.

Peter Biello: I want to ask you about a few specific examples of the kind of technology that might be deployed at this Grand Farm. One of them has to do with checking the genetics of peanuts to sort of optimize roasting flavor. Can you tell me a little more about this effort?

Sen. Larry Walker: Sure. So peanuts are a real big cash crop for Georgia, and we're the No. 1 peanut producer in the country. So we always want to deliver to the consumer what their tastes are and what they want and what the demand is so that Georgia peanuts can stay No. 1. So this is just a way to do that using genetics and that kind of thing. We also, of course, can modify seeds to make crops more drought resistant, more heat resistant. You have all kind of opportunities there.

Peter Biello: There are many parts of this that are interesting, and there's one that takes a look at bovine reproductive health — scans that help farmers plan on the cattle that they have on their farm. There's another piece of this where there are robots that are going to roam around chicken coops and pick up eggs that are not laid in the easy-to-grab places. So these robots essentially save some human labor in finding viable eggs that can be taken to market. It's just some fascinating, fascinating things that might be happening here at Grand Farm.

Sen. Larry Walker: Yeah. So I've seen a prototype of the egg robot that you're talking about, and it really looks sort of like a big Roomba, believe it or not. And chickens ... most of the chickens lay their eggs in a nest like they're supposed to, but some will lay their egg on the floor of the chicken house. And once one chicken does that, then the other chickens will start laying their eggs on the floor of the chicken house, which is not what you want, because the eggs will get damaged. ...  So this robot can see the eggs and it'll go and pick them up and so that they can be put in the nest. But primarily it's to keep the other chickens from continuing to lay eggs on the floor of the chicken house. It's pretty fascinating and also a little bit comical to watch.

Peter Biello: There's a $3 million investment now, likely a $15 million investment over a number of years. What's the return on investment for Georgia's economy expected to be? 

Sen. Larry Walker: Well, this is, as I said earlier, the biggest industry in Georgia is ag. And I view this as the survival of a lot of our family farms, is that we've got to get this technology to market and have them use it to be efficient and to be able to really survive financially. All their input costs have gone up dramatically with the inflation we've had. They have labor shortages. They have a lot of challenges just — plus with commodity prices not being what they should be, weather, etc., we've got to give them all the tools they need to be able to survive so we can continue to be the No. 1 industry in Georgia.