Bringing Farmers, Specialists and Vendors Together
By Mark H. Stowers
In the early 1970s, the late Bolivar County Agricultural Extension Agent Leroy Thomas had an idea. He wanted to bring farmers and extension specialists along with ag vendors all under one roof for a couple of days. That idea became the Delta Ag Expo held at the Bolivar County Exposition Center in January of 1974. Now, fifty years later, it’s the original Ag Expo in the Magnolia State as well as longest running. The Thursday, January 18, 2024, event will be a one day get-together for all things agriculture related. And it’s all thanks to an idea by a perfectionist who left no detail to chance. Kay Garrard had a front row seat to the original event, and decades more, as she worked in the Bolivar County Ag Extension office for more than thirty years.
“Leroy Thomas was the Bolivar County Ag Agent when I came to work for extension and it was his idea,” says Garrard. “He got together with Dr. George Mullendore, our cotton specialist and Dr. James Smith, our rice specialist at the time (both now deceased) and those three ironed out all the plans for the expo.”
Garrard recalls their idea was to have farm equipment on the Expo grounds and bring in agricultural meetings on popular subjects at the time.
“They combined the commercial and agricultural end of it,” she says. “We always had over 100 exhibitors.”
The expo had a dirt floor at the time and Garrard remembers that “we had to pack it real hard. We’d start working on the planning of the Expo for several months. It was always in January and we had to time it so it didn’t mess with hunting season.”
Originally, there were two classrooms in the Expo, one on the north end and one on the south end.
“The event started out small, but it kept getting bigger and bigger,” says Garrard. “People were excited about it because it was more than just going to a meeting, it was something different. Attendees could talk to people that they needed to talk to as far as equipment or new technology. We had guest speakers from Mississippi State on subjects that were popular at the time. And we’d have a question and answer type thing.”
And the ever particular attention-to-detail person Thomas was front and center in every aspect of the annual expo.
“He was a perfectionist,” she says. “When they first built the expo building, our office oversaw the project. He was very smart and a perfectionist to the extreme. We had a sign that had ‘Delta Ag Expo’ that hung in the north end on the overhead door. And this was probably the second or third year and we had labor from either the county farm or somebody hired to put the sign up. James Smith was in charge of them putting the sign up. Thomas came in the night before the expo and said, ‘it’s off a half inch on end. Y’all have to climb up there and change it.’ And they did. Everything had to be perfect. He was a very detailed person.”
Garrard says that the extension staff worked through the Christmas holidays to get things ready before the January event.
“The early years were tough because we had the dirt floor and didn’t have anything to cover it up with,” she says. “The meeting rooms were small and we didn’t have enough room. As time went on, things got better. And as technology changed we had to change our seminars. It was a good thing and everyone enjoyed it. It was fun and something we looked forward to every year. And if it rained we had more people show up.”
Michael Aguzzi, whose Delta Ag Expo memories go back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, notes there was crucial information there for farmers.
“It was a good place to get your seed book and all of that information,” says Aguzzi. “Now everybody’s planning has to be done earlier and earlier and the technology we have today, all of that information is at your fingertips. But back then it wasn’t.”
Laura Owens, Executive Secretary of Delta Agricultural Exhibition, has helped plan the event over the past decade.
“Next year we’re moving it to a one day show from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.,” says Owens. “We have vendors from all over the country. A company from Fresno, California, several from Iowa and of course, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. It’s the biggest ag show in the region by far.”
For the 2024 event, the newly renovated Ag Exposition Center will have food trucks and is open to the public at no charge. Ag Extension Specialists will be on hand to answer questions.
“We usually have around 125 vendors,” says Owens. “Everything from crop insurance, banks, irrigation companies—anything to do with farming—Wade and Case are always there and Helena Chemical. Any big name in agriculture will be there. It’s hard to believe that next year will represent fifty years of the Expo.”
Bolivar County Ag Extension Agent John Michael Blankenship will be in charge of of the event for the first time.
“I came to extension during a pivotal year,” says Blankenship. “I know historically, the Expo has been an opportunity for Mississippi State Research to be brought out to the public essentially. It’s a place where anyone from the Delta, Mississippi and the surrounding states can attend and its free to the public. We have seminars and some continuing education credit opportunities. We have all kinds of research from specialists to be disseminate to the public. And it’s an opportunity for companies around the Delta to come out and showcase their products and interact with their consumers.”