This year, Early focuses on celebrating peanuts

BLAKELY -- Last year, as the world read with horror about the nine deaths and 714 reported illnesses related to consumption of salmonella-tainted peanut products produced by Peanut Corporation of America's processing facility here, the backlash threatened not only this small farming community but the bottom line of Georgia's No. 1 cash crop.

As a response to the growing concern about peanut products in general and the plight of the area's many peanut farmers, Birdsong Peanut Co. and the development group Early County 2055, both based in Blakely, co-sponsored the expo/festival "Peanut Proud ... and Spreading the Word." That gathering of peanut-industry insiders, politicians and concerned citizens reconfirmed the area's commitment to one of the state's most prized exports.

This Saturday, the same two groups will once again pay tribute to peanuts and the peanut industry with "Peanut Proud ... a Celebration," which will be held along the Blakely Court Square.

"Last year, we were trying to get out something positive as a response to a crisis," Early County 2055 Director of Economic Development Lisa Collins said Monday. "This year we're holding a celebration. Peanuts are one of the backbones of our economy, not just in Blakely and Early County but for the entire United States."

Indeed, peanuts are recognized as the 12th-most valuable cash crop in all of the United States, and almost half of the nation's peanuts are produced in Georgia. Some officials estimate the PCA salmonella crisis cost Georgia peanut farmers in excess of $1 billion.

"During that crisis, there were all kinds of media here, and unfortunately, they were reporting nothing but negative news," Lea Jean Manry, an administrative assistant at Birdsong Peanut and president of the Peanut Proud board of directors, said Monday.

"At Birdsong, we talked about things we could do, to the point of having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the office once a week to show our support, our solidarity. We came up with the idea of offering school children free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the town square to show parents that our products were safe, and it just grew into an expo/festival. Everybody wanted to get involved."

The negative publicity started to wane in February 2009 when PCA filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Sales of peanut butter and other peanut products have steadily increased in the year since.

Officials associated with the national peanut industry and such influential politicians as Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, are expected to be on hand for the day-long event that kicks off at 10 a.m. State Rep. Gerald Greene, D-Cuthbert, is scheduled to present Early County 2055 with a proclamation commending the organization for its "Peanut Butter for Hiati" efforts following the recent earthquake in that country.

Among the events planned for the celebration are a farmer's appreciation breakfast, a 5-K run and fun run, educational exhibits, antique farm equipment exhibits, a parade, a peanut recipe contest, a "cutest goober" competition, arts and crafts displays and a street dance.

The evening dance, which runs from 6 p.m.-10 p.m., will feature local musicians Stormy Monday and North Carolina-based The Fabulous Expressions.

All events are free to the public.

"I wanted to get involved with this effort because Blakely is not only my home, it's my hometown," Manry said. "It's personal to me. And now that things have improved and peanut sales are up, we look at this as an opportunity to show the public how grateful we are.

"We've reached out to the chamber of commerce and the merchants in the community, and everyone's getting involved. It's going to be a great celebration."

For more information, contact Manry at (229) 723-2802 (online at www.peanutproud.com) or Collins at (229) 724-7558 (online at www.earlycounty2055.com).