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Sunbelt Expo celebrates 40 years of agricultural history

The primary founder of the Sunbelt Expo was the late Joe Burnside. His original job description didn’t include starting a major farm equipment show.

This year marks the 40th celebration of the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition. The Expo is the agricultural technology extravaganza that has been at the forefront of introducing new farming practices to new generations of American farmers and agriculturists.

The first Sunbelt Expo was held in 1978. However, the history of the Expo actually began years earlier, starting in 1964 with the first Dealer Day held on the campus of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Ga. These Dealer Days were intended for local farm equipment dealers to show off their new equipment while giving ABAC students the opportunity to meet with potential employers.

The primary founder of the Sunbelt Expo was the late Joe Burnside, who worked for University of Georgia Extension as a coordinator of agriculture and forestry. His original job description didn’t include starting a major farm equipment show. That is something he did on his own.

Burnside had a difficult job in persuading the agricultural industry along with University of Georgia administrators to support his idea of a large outdoor regional farm show. He was successful beyond all expectations.

A bunch of firsts

The first Expo in 1978 featured 410 exhibits and attracted an estimated crowd of 140,000.

In 1979, Burnside announced that the first summer row crops field day would be held. He called the field day a “mini Expo” because it offered a preview of the crops to be harvested during the mid-October show. The field day has since become an annual event attracting hundreds of visitors each year.

Some of the entertainment that highlighted the Expo during 1979 included hot air balloon rides provided by Diamond Shamrock and racing pigs in the Heinhold exhibit.

The 1980 Expo attracted an estimated crowd of 200,000 visitors, and the Expo that year joined the North American Farm Show Council which consisted of the largest farm shows in the U.S. Home economists in the Consumer and Family Living exhibit section introduced visitors to the new wonders of microwave cooking. The 1980 show also featured the addition of 20 new shuttle wagons to transport visitors to the harvesting and tillage demonstrations. The shuttle wagons saved individual visitors about two miles of walking. Comedian Jerry Clower entertained huge crowds at the International Harvester exhibit in 1980.

During the 1981 Expo, Florida was designated as the Expo’s first spotlight state. Nine new exhibits from Canada that year introduced an international flavor to the farm show. Cotton module builders were a new innovation used for the first time during the 1981 Expo.

Traffic congestion eased greatly during the 1982 Expo after the highway from Moultrie was widened to four lanes. A new special exhibit section during the 1982 show introduced farmers to wide variety of information available from then-new desktop computers.

The first pickup and automotive exhibit section was started during the 1985 Expo. That same year, the University of Georgia celebrated the 200th anniversary of its founding with a big birthday cake. By 1985, hay harvesting had become the Expo’s most popular field demonstration. Hay harvesting today remains the field demonstration that attracts the largest crowds of visitors.

During Burnside’s tenure as Expo director, the show started new exhibit sections such as beef cattle exhibits, along with exhibits for lawn and garden implements and pickup and automotive vehicles. All of these broadened the appeal of the show and continue to be major attractions at Expo.

The 1988 show featured a new pavilion to house beef cattle exhibits. That year, Auburn University and University of Georgia offered exhibits on new scientific advancements in biotechnology. The 1987 Expo also saw Kelley Manufacturing Company introduce the industry’s first four-row peanut combine. Portable sawmills made their first appearance during the 1987 Expo and these machines now comprise a major exhibit space in the western section of the exhibit grounds.

Number of improvements

After Burnside retired in 1987, the position of Expo director was filled by Bill Farrington. Though he was director for only one year in 1988, Farrington implemented a number of improvements.

Farrington started a college and university student fence-building contest that was well supported for several years. He expanded food services on the Expo grounds. He also greatly expanded the sawmills and forestry exhibits. Farrington oversaw the first stock dog trials at Expo.

He brought in the first horse demonstrations and the first hunting and fishing exhibits. Farrington also started a new annual event honoring young farmers and ranchers attending the Expo.

The major growth in the number of exhibits came when Ed White was the Expo director. White was the head of the University of Georgia’s Rural Development Center in Tifton when the Expo was organized. He served as acting director of the Expo in 1987 and became permanent Expo director following the 1988 show, a position he held until his death in 1997.

Exhibit numbers increased from about 400 when he became director to more than 1,000 when he died. White is also remembered for working with the company that became Swisher International in helping to found the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards program that began in 1990. By 1996, White noted that the Farmer of the Year had become the most prestigious award for farmers in the U.S.

Cutting horse demonstrations were a new attraction during the 1989 Expo. The new horse arena that year also hosted demonstrations from Paso Fino horses, draft horses and mules. A new five-row cotton picker was also introduced during the 1989 Expo by John Deere.

White was also instrumental in signing a long-term lease in 1989 with the city of Moultrie which owned the Expo property. This lease provided exhibitors with the confidence that they could put up permanent exhibit buildings.

The 1990 show was held for the first time on a Thursday-Friday-Saturday schedule, but major exhibitors were disappointed, and persuaded show managers to return to the mid-week show schedule that has remained each year since. A new dairy exhibit section made its debut at the 1990 show. Also, two new permanent agribusiness buildings were constructed in the middle of the show grounds and used for the first time to house 1990 exhibits. Virginia farmer Nelson Gardner was recognized as the first Southeastern Farmer of the Year during the 1990 show.

Making things permanent

During the 1991 Expo, a group of farmers from Argentina came to the show and bought equipment to take back to their farms. By 1991, the Expo had put up three permanent buildings for agribusiness exhibits. Permanent restroom facilities were also installed in the middle of the show grounds for the 1991 show. Young Farmer chapters competed in the first barbeque pork cooking contest during the 1991 Expo. Cotton stalk pullers and stalk shredders received the attention of visitors in the harvesting and tillage demonstrations that year. The 1991 Expo also welcomed television weatherman Willard Scott who delivered his Today Show weather reports from the Expo exhibit grounds.

Based on exhibit numbers in 1992, the Expo became the second largest farm show in the U.S. One new exhibit section in the 1992 show welcomed ostrich, emu and rhea birds. Another new exhibit section saw the debut of antique farm tractors during the 1992 Expo.

During the 1993 Expo, a Southern Living cooking school was a big hit that was held twice daily in the Maule aircraft facility. A faculty member from Baylor University in Texas brought an ethanol-powered airplane to demonstrate at Expo. That same year a South Georgia farmer exhibited and demonstrated a no-till bermudagrass sprigger he developed on his own farm.

One of White’s most controversial moves came in 1994, the year he retired from Georgia Extension. White and the Expo board at that time voted to separate the farm show from its University of Georgia origins. Relations between the University and the Expo were strained for a period, but have since been smoothed over. Today, University of Georgia scientists continue to conduct field research at Expo and the University continues to be one of the farm show’s prominent exhibitors.

Also during 1994, Expo officials held another lease signing ceremony with the City of Moultrie. This ceremony, as with others in the past, was aimed at putting to rest the rumors that the Expo would leave Spence Field for another location.

The 1994 Expo was notable for a funeral service held for the boll weevil that year. Boll weevil eradication began in North Carolina and had been a grand success in the Southeast. It was fitting that the 1994 Expo spotlight state was North Carolina.

Former President Jimmy Carter visited the 1996 Expo. That year, new exhibit sections were opened for small ruminants, cotton farming and small farmers. Also that year, Ed White said the Expo had become the largest farm show in North America.

The 1997 Expo featured a fourth new permanent agribusiness building. Deere introduced a new six-row cotton picker. The 1997 Expo also featured an expanded beef pavilion.

Beef cattle herd health demonstration became an annual fixture at Expo starting during the second Expo in 1979. Extension veterinarian Dr. David Bedell helped start the beef herd health demonstrations, and after he retired in the late 1980’s, Bill Patten of Fuller Supply Company stepped in as a volunteer leader of the livestock exhibits.

Current direction

In 2002, the Expo’s beef cattle pavilion was named in honor of Patten. A longtime member of the Expo board of directors, Patten helped to establish and expand the show’s livestock displays, including the dairy and horse exhibits, along with the alpaca and sheep and goat exhibit sections.

The Expo’s current director Chip Blalock began to manage the show starting in 1997. One of Blalock’s major contributions was to develop the Expo’s official slogan as North America’s Premier Farm Showtm. Blalock also oversaw the move of the Expo’s staff from rented office space in Tifton to a new permanent headquarters building on the Spence Field site near Moultrie.

Like his predecessor Ed White, Blalock has been a strong champion of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

During Blalock’s tenure, the Expo pioneered in introducing farmers to new genetically engineered crop varieties along with precision farming technologies such as variable rate applications and automated steering.

A new exhibit during the 1998 show featured 12 colleges represented in the Land Grant University tent. The University of Arkansas exhibit within the tent introduced farmers to the COTMAN computer system that simulates cotton growth. The 1998 show also showed the first emphasis on precision farming technology. Infrared and aerial photos showed that the Expo farm would benefit from variable rate nutrient applications. Also precision farming exhibits became a fixture in the Expo agribusiness buildings.

During the 1999 Expo, the U.S. Commerce Dept., promoted the Expo globally along with 20 other major U.S. trade shows as part of its International Buyer Program. Delegations from several countries visited the Expo as a result of this promotion, with large groups coming from China, Pakistan, India and Nigeria. Also that year, a Georgia-based farmer introduced a new machine he invented that converted large round hay bales into smaller rectangular bales.

Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College also opened a new permanent exhibit building during the 1999 Expo. ABAC was one of the original sponsors of Expo and has exhibited at the farm show each year since the first Expo in 1978.

Also during 1999, the Southern States cooperative became a major sponsor of the Expo’s precision farming demonstrations.

The 2000 Expo featured new exhibits from Mahindra that had recently entered the U.S. small tractor market, along with new models of the Mule all terrain vehicle from Kawasaki.

Automated steering tractors with technology from Trimble Navigation and corn silage harvesting with equipment from John Deere helped to highlight the field demonstrations during the 2001 Expo.

A new cotton picker from John Deere helped to pick some of the Expo’s cotton that was planted in 15-inch rows in 2004.

In 2005, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns came to Expo for a listening session to gather ideas for a new farm bill.

Looking forward

Poultry exhibits and seminars became established during the 2006 Sunbelt Expo. The first broadband cloud allowing quick, wireless access to email and the internet was provided for visitors attending the 2006 Expo.

A new aquaculture exhibit section was one of the highlights of the 2007 Expo. Also, the poultry exhibits were housed in a new permanent building during the 2007 show.

In 2009, the Expo’s research farm was named in honor of longtime Expo farm manager Darrell Williams.

One of the highlights of the 2011 Expo was a new exhibit building near the show site’s main gate sponsored by the Georgia Department of Agriculture and Georgia Farm Bureau. More than 200 acres of cotton were planted at Expo in 2011 to mirror the growth of cotton acreage in the Southeast.

During the 2012 show, the Expo recognized a century of service to the farming community by the propane gas industry. Propane-powered vehicles led the antique tractor parade that year. Also that year, two longtime irrigation exhibitors, Reinke and Valmont/Valley opened new permanent exhibit buildings.

For the 2013 Expo, visitors were offered the opportunity to download an app for their smart phones and handheld devices that would update visitors on the latest Expo activities such as harvesting and tillage demonstrations. This was the third year for the Expo app to be available from Penton Media, publisher of the official Expo program and Southeast Farm Press.  Corn and soybean harvesting demonstrations made a return appearance during the 2013 show, and the app gave visitors the starting times and locations so they wouldn’t miss these field activities.

The 2014 Expo saw the introduction of a new Rural Lifestyle exhibit section with displays and seminars geared to backyard gardening, backyard poultry, locally grown food crops and organic crop production. This exhibit section was later named the Hoss Tools Sustainable Living Center. New unmanned aerial vehicles or drones also made a big splash at the 2014 show.

In 2015, the show’s sheep and goat exhibit section was named in memory of Will Getz, longtime Extension animal scientist at Fort Valley State University. Getz helped to coordinate the sheep and goat seminars at Expo over many years. The Expo’s fish ponds were also expanded in time to grow bigger fish for visitors at the 2015 show.

Aquaponics, using components of both aquaculture and hydroponic plant culture, helped to highlight the Expo’s fish pond exhibit section during the 2016 show. A driving range for compact tractors that was new in the 2015 Expo was expanded for use in the 2016 show.

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