Extension work has its roots both literally and figuratively in agricultural soil. As I’ve written in previous blogs, we are the outreach branch of our state’s land grant university. The land grant schools (UF, FAMU, Auburn, UGA, Clemson, etc.) started with a focus on agriculture (including farm animals) and mechanics, morphing in modern days to strong agricultural science, engineering, and veterinary programs. Most of the regional land grant universities maintain an educational barn/exhibit hall at “North America’s Premier Farm Show,”® better known as the Sunbelt Ag Expo. Located in Moultrie, Georgia, Sunbelt has been going for 43 years. There are more than 1200 vendors, 600 acres of working farmland (used for experimental ag research and development), 100 acres of exhibit space, and 400 product lines on display.
Each year, UF IFAS Extension agents choose a new theme for our outreach efforts. This year it’s grasses, and every program area created an exhibit related to the same theme. Our livestock/ag folks are discussing forage grasses, our horticulture agents covering turfgrass, nutrition agents teaching about healthy grains, and the natural resource agents have a seagrass exhibit. We give away Florida orange juice and peanuts, and thousands of farmers, FFA students, and others in ag-associated businesses come through our building.
During a break from showing off horseshoe crabs and starfish and teaching visitors how to identify organisms in seagrass beds, I grabbed a cone of homemade blueberry ice cream and jumped on a tractor-pulled tram. It pulled us around a field to watch a hay baling demonstration and view cotton fields, ending at sheepdog herding demos. The Expo included huge displays of farm equipment, an antique tractor parade, and an SEC competition of a different kind—a cow-milking contest between Extension deans from UF, UGA, and Auburn.
The Sunbelt Ag Expo is part county fair, part commercial trade show, and part agritourism. While a lot of urban residents may think of farming as old-fashioned, the technology used in today’s ag enterprises are anything but. I remember meeting a farmer’s son many years ago—he was headed to college to get an engineering degree, so he could understand the equipment needed to run the family farm! Expensive, high-tech GPS-enabled tractors, harvesters, and combines, aerial drones, and satellite-based irrigation are commonplace in Florida farms. Agriculture is the second largest industry in Florida, just behind tourism. Without it, we would go hungry. If you are ever curious about how modern farming works and the effort that goes into it, I highly commend the Sunbelt Ag Expo as a mid-October getaway and experience.