This story was updated at 11 a.m. Friday.
The smell of barbecue will soon waft from the Georgia Freight Depot in downtown Atlanta. For Georgia politicos, that means one thing: Lawmakers are about to return to the halls of the Gold Dome.
For nearly six decades, the Wild Hog Supper has signified the official kickoff of the new legislative session. Before bills are debated, budgets are parsed and hard-fought compromises are struck, there’s a friendly reunion over a plate of barbecue and shared anticipation over what the new session will bring.
“At this time of year, there’s always some grumbling, ‘Yeah, I gotta go back to Atlanta,’ or ‘The General Assembly is right around the corner,’” said Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, whose agency helps put on the event. “But you also realize that everybody who says that, they wouldn’t miss it for anything on earth.
“It’s probably the best event of the year that everyone says they didn’t want to go to but they wouldn’t dare miss,” Black said.
The event, set for Jan. 12, has a storied history that begins in a Dodge County swamp in the 1950s, when the idea of the wild hog feast was hatched during a camping trip with House Speaker George L. Smith, Agriculture Commissioner Phil Campbell and Boo Addison. The Addison family’s wild boar hunting preserve would go on to provide the victuals for the legislative supper for decades – until 2012.
When Black became the state’s commissioner of agriculture eight years ago, he brought with him a fresh concern for food safety. Feral hogs, he noted, can be vectors for tuberculous and other diseases – a risk he was happy to leave behind in the annals of Georgia history.
“We did have something to do with making sure that this was good healthy pork to eat at the dinner,” Black said.
The barbecue offered up at the Wild Hog Supper is still Georgia pork, though. It’s just of the domesticated variety. Georgia may not be known for its pork, but at a value of $116 million in 2017, pigs are no small part of agriculture here either. There’s also a variety of Georgia-produced sauces on hand for slathering.
But for those still hankering for authentic wild hog, no worries. The state has created ample opportunity for those industrious enough to hunt their own wild hog. Considered a menace to farmland, Georgia has declared open season on the feral hogs running amok in parts of the state.
Once an event put on by lobbyists, this tamer pig feast is now a fundraiser that helps fill the pantries of those in need. Everyone, even the governor, is now expected to pay their own way. More than $15,000 was raised last year, and the Georgia Food Bank Association will also happily take a can of food from you at the door.
That money goes a long way, said Danah Craft, the director of the Georgia Food Bank Association. It’s what helped the group increase the amount of unmarketable or excess Georgia-grown produce that was donated this year from 14 million pounds last year to 16 million. That’s food that would have otherwise been left to rot in the field or trashed.
“Having two million pounds of food incrementally is really huge for a small investment,” Craft said.
Craft said she sees the annual event as a way to celebrate the state’s top industry and its contributions to feeding hungry Georgians.
More than 1,000 attendees – including lawmakers, lobbyists, advocates and reporters – typically show up each year. And this year’s event will add a contingent of future farmers to the mix, with members of youth ag groups invited.
And then it will be back to work for lawmakers. So what big issues await them after their pork digests?
“The budget is No. 1, and then No. 2 is going to be the budget, and then No. 3 is going to be the budget,” said Sen. Ellis Black, a Valdosta Republican, referring to Gov. Brian Kemp’s ordered spending cuts.
Jan 13: Georgia lawmakers will gavel into session for the second year of the 2019-2020 session. First up? Usually the mundane yet highly negotiated task of drawing up the session’s calendar, which determines when the General Assembly will meet as a full body (a day off on St. Patrick’s Day is usually a safe bet).
Jan. 14: Georgians for a Healthy Future will hold its annual Health Care Unscrambled event, featuring a bipartisan legislative panel.
Jan 15: The state’s highest leaders will take the stage at the Georgia World Congress Center and outline some of their legislative priorities while folks enjoy breakfast at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues.
Jan. 16: Gov. Brian Kemp will deliver his second State of the State address, an event that usually outlines each governor’s agenda for the year. The governor has ordered budget cuts for most state agencies, so there is more than the usual anticipation building for the release of Kemp’s second budget (and the first he’s carried through the entire budget process).
Other notable events later in the month:
Jan 23: The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s legislative breakfast
Jan. 24: The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute’s Insights 2020: Weighing Opportunity at the Georgia Freight Depot
Jan. 29: 2020 Maternal and Infant Health Policy Breakfast at Central Presbyterian Church