Farm-City Tour explores tree farm, equestrian center, general store

The Oconee County Chamber of Commerce took a busload of people on an agriculture-themed tour Thursday, escorting them to a tree farm, an equestrian center and a new store where sausage is king.

The tour, an annual event since 1991, is geared toward showing the diversity of agriculture’s impact on local business.

“The purpose of the tour is to make it known to our community that agriculture is alive and well in Oconee County,” said Monte Stephens, Oconee County’s Cooperative Extension Service agent. “Our children need to understand that they may one day have a job in agriculture. It’s not just farming per se — that’s a side of it — but there are other sides in manufacturing and retail.”

The tour’s first stop was Southeastern Growers, a tree farm in Farmington. The farm currently employes about 25 people and is growing about 350,000 plants on 500 acres, according to farm manager Carol Seadale.

“We sell to landscapers, builders, land developers,” Seadale said. “Some are right around here, but we also ship to Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and up to Kentucky and once in a while to Michigan and Minnesota.” The trees are grown from seeds or cuttings at a facility in Bishop, then grown at the Farmington location and sold in pots ranging from 15 gallons to 100 gallons.

The next stop for Thursday’s tour was the University of Georgia’s Equestrian Center, a 109-acre facility on Astondale Road in Bishop that opened in 2009. The university keeps about 50 horses on the farm.

Michelle Morris, who works at the facility and formerly competed on the university’s equestrian team, said UGA is one of only four universities in the Southeastern Conference — along with South Carolina, Auburn and Texas A&M — with an equestrian team.

When schools travel to “away” competitions, they use the horses at that university, Morris explained.

“You are put into a computer and the computer draws your specific horse,” she said, adding that a Georgia rider and a rider from other school will ride the same horse. The UGA equestrian team is currently ranked No. 1 in the country.

Also on Thursday’s tour was Stripling’s General Store off U.S. Highway 78, where Keith Odom, a store manager, noted the business is known for its “outstanding” sausage.

Odom was joined at the store by owner Jimmy Camp, and by the man who oversees the sausage-making, Ricky Hardin. The family began making and selling sausage in 1964 using secret blend of seasoning.

Stripling’s is well-known in south Georgia, but the Oconee County location is the first franchise store located in north Georgia.

“I called Ricky Hardin about two years ago. We never had met and we just started a conversation and I told him what I had in mind,” Camp said.

The store has not yet had its grand opening, but it opened recently so employees could begin training for their jobs.

The sausage is a result of what Odom called “vertical integration.” Hardin purchases the pigs at about 40 pounds, then grows them to slaughter size before taking them to the processing plant he owns in Moultrie. By owning the pigs, processing the meat, then making the sausage, he controls the quality of the product, Odom said.

The tour ended with a lunch featuring students who had won an agriculture essay contest. Students from Oconee County Middle School were Carter Huckaby, Marin Lonee, Joseph Deaton, Elli Scarborough, Tyler Burke, Lilly Grace Taylor, Ben Howell, Jacob Lowder and Kaitlin Ostendorf. Students from Malcom Bridge Middle School were Anna Barnett, Caroline Brank, Constantine Saliki, Shayla Brose, Isabella Roberson, Maitland Hood, Jack Kulp, Anna Sisse and Claire Dempsey.

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