Interview: Jodi Helmer on Farming and Agritourism in Georgia

In the following interview, Jodi Helmer, author of Farm Fresh Georgia: The Go-To Guide to Great Farmers’ Markets, Farm Stands, Farms, U-Picks, Kids’ Activities, Lodging, Dining, Dairies, Festivals, Choose-and-Cut Christmas Trees, Vineyards and Wineries, and More discusses agritourism in Georgia.

Q: What made you decide to write Farm Fresh Georgia as a part of UNC Press’s Farm Fresh series? And why did you choose to write about Georgia over any other state?

Jodi Helmer (photo by Lindsay Wynne Hess)

Jodi Helmer (photo by Lindsay Wynne Hess)

A: Diane Daniel, the author of Farm Fresh North Carolina, introduced me to UNC Press and the Farm Fresh series. As a journalist, I write a lot about sustainable living, agriculture, and travel, and I have a personal passion for growing food, raising animals, and supporting local farmers. Being part of the Farm Fresh series gave me the opportunity to combine my experience and interests to create a book that I hope will inspire others and shine a light on Georgia’s farmers.

Georgia is an amazing state with an amazing diversity of landscapes and experiences from the coast to the mountains which I was eager to explore—and Savannah is one of my favorite places in the world.

Q: You are not a native Georgian yourself; do you think having an “outsider’s perspective” on the state shaped your writing?

A: Yes, I do think that not being a local shaped the book. I saw the farms, wineries, roadside stands, and restaurants from a fresh perspective; there was no sense of “been there, done that” when I was exploring. I imagine that I had the same excitement as visitors who are using Farm Fresh Georgia to seek out new agritourism destinations; I hope the thrill of going to a new place for the first time comes through in the pages.

Q: Did you write this book mainly for agritourists from other states, or do you think Georgians could get some ideas from Farm Fresh Georgia too?

A: I believe the book is a valuable resource for visitors and locals alike. Visitors can seek out attractions based on their travel plans and learn a little more about them before setting off on a rural road. For locals, my hope is that Farm Fresh Georgia will help them learn something new about their favorite agritourism destinations and learn about hidden gems they haven’t explored.

Q: What is something that many people would be surprised to learn about Georgia?

A: Georgia is called the Peach State but it’s actually third in the nation for peach production (behind South Carolina and California). Even though the state doesn’t grow the most peaches, it does grow the tastiest!

Q: Some readers may not be familiar with agritourism, the main focus of Farm Fresh Georgia. Why is agritourism important, and why would you recommend it to your readers?

A:We’ve become so disconnected from the source of our food! While I was traveling through Georgia, several farmers told me that kids who visited their farms had no idea that chickens laid eggs and carrots came out of the soil. Agritourism provides a great opportunity to learn where our food comes from and meet the farmers who grow and raise it. Farmers work incredibly hard to put food on our tables; visiting farms shows that we value their dedication to growing fresh, local foods and want to support their work. If we want small farms to survive, we need to support the farmers.

Q: Your book is organized by the six main regions of Georgia; do you have a favorite region to recommend to readers?

A: It would be impossible to choose a favorite region. I love visiting the mountains in the fall to pick apples and take in the amazing colors of the changing leaves; the seafood in the coastal region is as outstanding as the islands and historic districts where it’s served; the heart of Georgia has an amazing diversity of agritourism destinations and some of the friendliest farmers in the state; and Atlanta is a fabulous foodie getaway at any time of the year.

Farm Fresh GeorgiaQ: You include 13 recipes in the book, including Lavender Ice Cream, Light Georgia Pecan Pie, and Brown Sugar Bacon Popcorn. Where did you get the recipes from, and how did you decide which to list in the book? Are they good examples of traditional Georgian foods?

A: The recipes I included were those that represented traditional Southern dishes, used a significant proportion of local, seasonal ingredients, and were simple enough for a home cook to prepare. Most importantly, I chose recipes that were delicious!

Q: In your book you list hundreds of agritourism locations of many different types. How did you find all of these places, and how did you select which to include in the book?

A: The Georgia Department of Economic Development helped me identify agritourism destinations in each of the regions and I used their guidance as a starting point for exploring. Along the way, I asked farmers for recommendations of their favorite farm experiences, and I followed a lot of roadside signs down gravel roads. In choosing destinations to include, I featured destinations I loved because the attractions were interesting, educational, or delicious and the experiences were memorable. All of the places in the book are ones I’d love to revisit and I hope readers enjoy them as much as I did.

Q: While you were researching Farm Fresh Georgia, what was your most unusual/exciting experience?

A: I had so many amazing experiences while I was researching Farm Fresh Georgia. I got a kiss from an alpaca! Until I started researching the book, I’d never even been close to an alpaca; I was actually a little afraid of them because they were so weird looking. But I learned that they are incredibly sweet, gentle animals—and so soft!

The thing I remember—and appreciate—most was the hospitality of the farmers. Everywhere I went, the farmers were so passionate about their work; they happily shared their stories, showed me around, and shared their bounty. I ate really, really well while I was on the road.

Q: You mention a few more serious topics, such as food waste, fair trade certification, and undocumented labor, as well as fun destinations. Why did you think it was important to bring up these ideas?

A: The topics I covered all have important links to farming and food. Too often, we have this idyllic idea of what it means to work the land. In truth, farmers face serious challenges and consumers are often unaware of what it takes to get food from the field to the table. I hope readers think about these topics when they visit farms, interact with farmers, and make decisions about where to spend their food dollars.

Q: What effect do you hope to have on your readers with Farm Fresh Georgia? Did you hope to create an educational volume as much as a travel guide?

A: Yes, that was exactly my hope.

Q: Now that you’ve finished writing Farm Fresh Georgia, what’s the next step for you? Will you continue writing about farms and agritourism?

A: Researching and writing Farm Fresh Georgia made me even more passionate about farming and agritourism; I will continue writing about both for national magazines and websites. I do have another farm-related book project in the works but it’s too early to talk about it. Stay tuned.

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Jodi Helmer writes about travel and sustainable living for many national magazines, and her books include The Green Year and Moon Charlotte. Her newest book, Farm Fresh Georgia: The Go-To Guide to Great Farmers’ Markets, Farm Stands, Farms, U-Picks, Kids’ Activities, Lodging, Dining, Dairies, Festivals, Choose-and-Cut Christmas Trees, Vineyards and Wineries, and More, is available now. Visit the book website at farmfreshgeorgia.com.