MOULTRIE -- Nothing but blue sky is what officials see on the first day of the 24th annual Sunbelt Agricultural Expo.

More than 1,100 exhibitors showed up as promised despite the pall of recent events that sent a shockwave through the U.S. just over a month ago. But for many that initial shock has turned to patriotic resolve to proceed -- albeit a little more cautiously -- with life as usual in America.

"I think it's one of those events that after everything that's happened, you attend and you're not going to let something like that keep you away," Expo Marketing Director Gina McDonald said. "Agriculture being the backbone of America that it is, it's just one more thing to say this is what we stand for -- this is what it's about in the South. We've have all these folks say that 'you couldn't have kept us away for nothing. We're glad to be here.'"

"Expo is the grand finale of the outdoor show season," Expo Director Chip Blalock said. "Everybody points to Moultrie through the summer and fall show season. Everybody is excited to be here. The attitude of the exhibitors has been very positive."

While the Expo reaches across the globe with its brand new international business center, the theme throughout the exhibits is decidedly home-grown. The 100-acre exhibit area will be awash in red, white and blue. Nationalistic sentiment will intertwine with commerce, science and entertainment, giving this year's Expo the potential to be one of the more memorable shows in Sunbelt history.

At 9 a.m., there will be a moment of silence to honor those lost in the Sept. 11 attacks. After that "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" will be played over the Expo public announcement system.

The Red Cross booth will be set up between the Family Living Building and the Morten Agribusiness Building Number One to the left of the main gate to take donations for disaster relief. Also, Expo is breaking precedent and donating $2 from the sale of every Sunbelt Expo T-shirt to the relief effort, Blalock said.

Favorable weather and favorable harvests also heighten the show.

"If anything, this growing season is reminding us in this area that we can grow a good crop," Blalock said. For the most part, we've got a very good crop in cotton and peanuts throughout the region."

Sunbelt Expo -- simply put -- is an opportunity to learn about new and useful ideas. Six hundred acres are dedicated to harvesting demonstrations.

"When you think of Expo, you think of demos, whether it's in the field or in the family living section or the ATV section, the livestock section or the forestry section," Blalock said, adding that in general the exhibitors have set up more interactive displays and demonstrations than in the past.

"I think you're having more test tracks, like the ATVs. You have more people coming out wanting to actually allow visitors to actually get on the equipment and try it out," McDonald said.

One of the larger test tracks is sponsored by General Motors, which will double the number of demonstration vehicles to four.

Rollin-S-Trailers Inc. will have two trailers to test on a track that simulates a work environment to better determine how they handle and their towing capacity.

One of the new Expo exhibitors that may be of particular interest is Lansberry Tractor Company of Woodland, Pa. McDonald said that Lansberry may be looking to manufacture in Georgia. The Lansberry Tractor looks somewhat like a "bulldozer on training wheels," Blalock said.

The small machine uses a single track with flanking drive and steering wheels, lowers the center of gravity, improves maneuverability, improves traction and results in an exceptionally stable vehicle platform, sales representatives said.

Georgia is this year's spotlight state. The University of Georgia takes up the torch with an interactive exhibit that will lead guests from agricultural production all the way to Wall Street, McDonald said. The Georgia exhibit will feature a putting green on actual turf grass and will host a scavenger hunt for children so they can learn a

bout agriculture through fun.

"Aw, man -- the spotlight state's an awesome exhibit," Blalock said.

Most every exhibitor has promotion items to give away, but the big prize draws are really big this year. Chevy Trucks and Progressive Farmer are giving away two pickup trucks this year. Those registering to win the trucks are also eligible to win $100 and gift bags from the Sunbelt Expo. The gate prize will be a Massey Ferguson Simplicity lawn tractor worth $2,500. A new exhibitor, Ocala Fabrication (OFAB) of Ocala Florida will be giving away a Dura-Deck rotary cutter valued at $3,900, OFAB representative Curt Davis said.

"There's a wealth of knowledge coming in. It is amazing to me how much new stuff still keeps coming in and how much new technology," McDonald said. "It's something you have to see to believe. And I've had three comments (Monday), that 'I've never been here and I am simply amazed at the expanse' (of the Expo)."

"We get teased a lot: 'You work only three days a year. That's the best job in the world.' But people don't realize, we put our heart and soul in Expo 362 days for these three days, and it's just so cool to watch it all come together," Blalock said.

-- By Lori Glenn

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