Thousands attend Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition

MOULTRIE -- Sunny weather and numerous new exhibits at the 32nd annual Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition drew a steady crowd throughout the event's Tuesday opening.

"We're thankful to have great crowds and great weather," said Chip Blalock, executive director of the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition.

He said that more than 93 acres of the expo's location at Spence Field are filled with outdoor exhibits that feature the latest goods and services, cutting-edge technology and labor-saving devices for farmers.

"There is always new technology with our equipment company exhibitors," Blalock said. "This year, I think a focus has been set on the most economical way to farm."

Many of the exhibits and free seminars at the Sunbelt Expo focused on ways in which farmers can combat high prices and find solutions to farming efficiently.

Blalock said that despite the recession this year's expo, which has a $16 million economic impact on 20 counties in the area, was fortunate enough to still be able to sell all of its outdoor exhibit space.

"I think the economy affected some of our indoor exhibit space," he said. "We don't have as many indoor vendors as we did last year, but we still have a lot of variety and many new exhibits for everyone to enjoy."

Blalock said that the Sunbelt Expo features approximately 1,184 exhibits this year with a special exhibit dedicated to North Carolina, the expo's Spotlight State this year.

Around noon, a luncheon was held in honor of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year finalists who competed for the Farmer of the Year Award and a prize of $15,000.

The 10 finalists were from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Cary Lightsey, a cattlemen from Lake Wales, Fla., was this year's Farmer of the Year.

He said that he was overwhelmed by the honor and that the award was a dream come true.

"The way we treat the land is the way it's going to treat us later," said Lightsey of the importance of being an environmentally-conscious farmer. "We want to save our heritage."

He said that to be recognized for something he already loves doing is just an added bonus to the award.

"Today is a day I'll never forget," Lightsey said.

Georgia's Farmer of the Year was Bill Brim, a vegetable grower from Tifton. He currently operates on about 2,500 acres of owned land and 1,500 rented acres.

Blalock said that this is the 20th year the Farmer of the Year award and luncheon has been held.

"It's important to bring (farmers) recognition for what they do," he said. "Their work is so important to us all and farmers are generally humble people, so it is our way of saying thank you to them."

Around 2:30 p.m., a cow milking contest was held in which various Deans of Agriculture competed.

Deans from Abraham Baldwin College, Auburn University, University of Georgia and the University of Florida competed.

Blalock said that the Sunbelt Expo will continue today and Thursday.

Expo admission is $10 for ages 13 and up and free for those 12 and under. The gates open at 8:30 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. today and at 4 p.m. on Thursday.