From humble beginnings in 1977, the Sunbelt Agricultural Expo has become one of the leading agricultural shows in the world. The 2007 Expo drew nearly a quarter million people from all over the world.
As an upstart assistant editor at Auburn University in 1977, I was thrilled to be involved with the Auburn exhibit for a fledgling ag show. Having worked as a newspaper reporter in Tifton, Ga., I suspect I was chosen to transport the Auburn exhibit to the first Sunbelt Expo, because I was the only person in our office who knew how to get to Moultrie, Ga.
The first show was a perfect example of semi-organized chaos spread over the rut-filled runway of what had been a small town airport. The few tents that were spread on the grounds were in large part not adapted to the rigors of October weather in south Georgia.
When all was said and done, the first Sunbelt Agriculture Exposition was declared a success.
Subsequent shows were better organized and better attended, though often disrupted by Mother Nature. In particular I remember sitting through an awards luncheon, which may have been called the Willie B. Withers Luncheon back then, with my feet off the ground because torrential rains flooded in and around, even through, the tent. First to go was the public address system, followed by most of the exhibits provided by Florida — the spotlight state.
Getting to the Expo can still be a challenge today, but nothing like the early days, when a quarter million or so people tried to get into Moultrie, Ga, then into Spence Field to the show — often more or less at the same time. Now, there are multiple gates to enter and a small army of well-trained people to usher cars into the many parking areas for the show.
Ground transportation was often tedious and could take hours to get into the show, but air transportation was a whole different adventure. Though the show is located on part of an airport that is still operational, in the early days there was no air traffic control and no ground to air radar. Going to Sunbelt Expo from Auburn, Ala. was a breeze from a time standpoint — 45 minutes versus three and a half hours driving, but landing in cloudy weather was a true test of spiritual conviction.
It's growing pains long since forgotten, the modern day Sunbelt Expo, is a model for efficiency and a true showcase for Southeastern agriculture. Chip Blalock, the executive director; Gina McDonald, marketing director, Dian Causey, exhibits coordinator and the whole staff of the Expo have modernized the show without robbing it of an ounce of the Southern charm that made it so popular in the early years.
When I walk into the modern, permanent buildings that hold university exhibits, I think back to the large plywood panels we set up late one Monday afternoon — under a tent — only to return for the opening of the show on Tuesday to find that hurricane-fed high winds and torrential rains had left our clever exhibit a pile of warped boards filled with very expensive, very ruined four by six-foot photographs of Alabama agriculture.
Over the years the show has spread beyond the tarmac of Spence Field and now includes an annual field day, many permanent commodity buildings and displays, including in 2007, a well-stocked pond for aquaculture projects.
The big companies — John Deere, Monsanto and many more still come and bring the newest, biggest and best products they make. In recent years, agribusiness buildings have been built and house everything from steel safes to artificial putting greens. Literally, anything a person could want for farm or home is for sale at the Expo.
Though the Expo serves many functions, all positive, for agriculture, perhaps its least publicized virtue is to open agriculture up to thousands of school-age kids who attend the show every year. The future of agriculture has to be in the youth of America and throughout its history Sunbelt Expo has opened its gates and its heart to students of all ages.
For Sunbelt Expo, the past has been colorful and the future is bright.