A most unusual thing occurred in Moultrie, Ga., recently. American agriculture and, more specifically, American farmers, were celebrated. Not criticized or vilified for taking advantage of government largesse, but actually celebrated for their contribution to a way of life that has been taken for granted far too long.

The celebration I’m speaking about, of course, took place at the Sunbelt Agricultural Expo, known as “North America’s Premier Farm Show,” and for good reason. If you’re ever feeling discouraged about the plight of farmers and of agriculture in general — and it’s easy to do so these days — just make the annual pilgrimage to Moultrie and you’ll feel better about things.

It’s heartening just see that endless stretch of cars and trucks waiting to enter the gates — makes you think the reports of the death of agriculture, or of interest in agriculture, have been greatly exaggerated.

The great thing about the Expo is that it’s never the same two years in a row. Each year brings new technologies, new equipment and new opportunities for learning how to improve a farming operation, whether you’re growing traditional row crops, fruits or vegetables, or raising beef cattle, dairy, poultry, catfish, sheep or goats.

And the Expo is not a spectator-only event. Growers not only can kick the tires and catch a whiff of the new green, red or yellow paint. They can actually drive that new tractor or truck, or they can see for themselves the accuracy of auto-steer and similar global positioning systems.

The highlight of the three-day Sunbelt Expo is the luncheon announcing the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year. This year’s winner — from among 10 outstanding farmers — was Brian Kirksey of Arkansas.

The Farmer of the Year presentations were made even more special this year by the inclusion — for the first time ever — of a female nominee, Loretta Lyons of Kentucky.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has become a regular fixture at the Expo during his two terms in office, told the crowd at the awards luncheon that even in the midst of the current U.S. financial crisis, agriculture was still standing tall.

“I wish the financial sector had to produce goods in the same way agriculture has to produce them. Even when bankers and credit markets are in turmoil, farmers have to plan for another year. And farmers learn better production methods each year, sharing their stories at events such as this. Agriculture is still the No. 1 industry in our state,” said Perdue.

“I believe farmers, producers and small-business people and people who make goods will be the foundation rock of a resurgence of the United States of America economy for the future, and you all will lead the way,” he added.

Also at the luncheon, Roger Thomas, executive director of the Kentucky Governor’s Office of Ag Policy, echoed Perdue’s sentiment that it was an honor to stand before so many others who loved agriculture. “Agriculture continues to be the backbone of our economy, and it’s important we share the values of agriculture through events like this,” said Thomas.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss reminded the Expo crowd that farmers and ranchers make up less than 2 percent of America’s population. “Agriculture, however, is the one bright spot in our balance of trade exports. One out of every six jobs in Georgia is directly related to agriculture,” he said.

Chambliss, who is a native of Moultrie and Colquitt County, Ga., also mentioned the agricultural diversity of the home of the Expo. “I once told someone that if you eat it, wear it, or smoke it, odds are that it came from my hometown,” he said.

The senator said it had been a particularly difficult year in Washington, D.C., with the contentious writing of the farm bill. The view from around the country as it relates to agricultural policy has not always been a positive one, he added.

A special guest at the awards presentation was Mark Keenum, USDA undersecretary for Farm and Agriculture Service. Keenum — a native of Mississippi and former economist with Mississippi State University — assured farmers his department is currently working on writing the rules and regulations that will be used to administer the new farm bill. “It will be implemented in the same way as the old program, and it’ll last through 2012,” he said.

He also commented that the agricultural economy is stronger than ever. “Our economy for agriculture is as strong today as it has ever been in the history of American agriculture. Overall, the balance sheet for American agriculture is extremely strong.”

But while the raw numbers look good, he said, farmers face record-high input costs, a tightening cash flow, and a recent downturn in commodity markets. “The risks are there and they are real.”

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com