The recent collapse of the WTO negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, has re-ignited the debate over excessive farm subsidies, giving the national media yet another opportunity to vilify American farmers. One popular television commentator was even heard to remark that U.S. farmers were the ultimate “welfare queens,” relying on government handouts for their continued sustenance.

That's his right, I suppose, as long as he doesn't say it with a mouth full of American-grown food. Or, as long as his body isn't covered with clothes spun from American-grown cotton.

Rare indeed is there ever an occasion for honoring farmers and recognizing that their work is perhaps second in importance only to national defense in securing the safety and continued well-being of each of us.

But such an occasion did occur recently in Moultrie, Ga., as it does every year in mid-October at the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition.

The Expo continues to grow each year, easily earning the title of “North America's Premier Farm Show.” During the three days of the show, more than 200,000 people entered the gates and visited the 1,193 exhibits — a new Expo record. Expo Director Chip Blalock says both indoor and outdoor exhibit space — at total of 2.1 million square feet — were sold out as of Sept. 15, the first time this has happened in the 26-year history of the Expo.

During the opening day of the Sunbelt Expo, the Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for 2003 was honored, in a ceremony befitting the recipient of such a prestigious award.

Held in a large aircraft hangar on the Expo grounds, about 2,000 people, including dignitaries from throughout the South, braved the heat, humidity and swarming gnats of south Georgia to recognize finalists for the award from eight Southern states and to honor the ultimate winner.

In a scene reminiscent of the Master's Golf Tournament, the finalists are presented to the audience clad in dark green blazers. This year, as in past years, they represented a good cross-section of Southeastern farmers, both in age and in the crops they grow.

Representing one generation of farmers was Harold Pitts, a 76-year-old from South Carolina who grows corn, wheat, soybeans, hay and forage sorghum along with a dairy herd and beef cattle. At the other end of the spectrum was John Smith, a 33-year-old Tennessean who grows soybeans, wheat, corn, burley tobacco, bermudagrass hay, registered angus cattle and feeder/finished steers.

Florida's finalist — 73-year-old Sonny Williamson — grows oranges and grapefruit, along with 1,008 acres of catfish. And the winner of this year's award — 57-year-old Charles Parkerson of Virginia — operates a nursery enterprise and has helped to revolutionize the national horticulture industry with several innovations.

A look at the biographies of the finalists shows that not only are they excellent farmers, but each of them also is actively involved in their respective communities, with memberships and participation in various civic organizations. In addition, many of these farmers consider themselves to be educators, offering business and educational tours to anyone interested in learning more about agriculture.

The awards ceremony also is a reunion of sorts for former finalists and winners. One former finalist — William T. “Bill” Hawks of Mississippi — gave the keynote address at this year's luncheon, acting in his current capacity as under secretary of USDA for marketing and regulatory programs.

There's a sense of reverence to this annual ceremony, a feeling of respect and rapt admiration for each farmer present. It's a welcome respite from the usual drivel generated by national news outlets.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com