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SAVANNAH, GA -- Despite freezing weather that threatened crops across the region, a record number of attendees turned out for the 12th annual Southeastern Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference, held Jan. 7-10 at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center.

When the first SEFVC was held in 1999, 583 attendees showed up. By this year, that number had bloomed to a record 2,249 growers, exhibitors, educators and legislators -- an increase of 5.4 percent over 2009 and the 10th consecutive year of increased attendance.

SEFVC is sponsored by the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association and the Georgia Peach Council.

Some of the attendees were heavy-hitters from the industry, government and the groves of academe. Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin and his counterpart from South Carolina, Hugh Weathers, both addressed the conference at the general session Jan. 9. U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA) delivered the keynote address, and Rep. John Barrow (D-GA) was also on hand.

Rakesh Singh, head of the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, was in attendance, as were Clemson University plant pathologist Guido Schnabel and UGA entomologist Moukaram Tertuliano, so freshly arrived from his former post at the University of Florida that he was still handing out UF business cards with new contact information hastily scribbled over the old.

At the other end of the scale were part-time farmers and newcomers to the industry, like Joe and Wanda Stegall, career educators who got into farming since their retirement and now operate Olive Branch Fresh Produce in North Carolina.

"This is a chance for us to come learn from the professionals," Mr. Stegall said. "Even though we're a small operation, we're learning and growing, and exposure like this helps."

Some of the attendees were setting out in new directions and looking for exposure. Shawn Davis of Southeast Bark & Blueberry Farms in Alma, GA, manned a booth for his latest project, an effort to grow olives in Georgia in the downtime after the blueberry season ends.

"Historically, Georgia has sustained olive production," Mr. Davis said, noting that the industry fell off after the Civil War as farmers turned to other crops. "It looks promising as an off-season crop for me. I've had trees in for three years."

Food safety was a hot topic at the conference, with a full-day session devoted to the topic. The conference also offered 60 hours of commodity- specific production training, pest-management information and marketing updates. Individual sessions were held for peaches, vegetables, Vidalia onions, watermelons, muscadines, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and pecans.

Meanwhile, the SEFVC trade show floor bustled with activity, as more than 200 vendors provided attendees with a chance to sample products, talk with industry representatives, observe demonstrations, network with other growers and learn about the latest in fresh produce technology.

While many conferences lean toward social and networking activities, the SEFVC was more of a no-frills affair. Threatening weather had the crowd in a serious mood, more concerned about problems back home than painting Savannah red. A reception at the end of the first full day of activities Jan. 9 was held on the trade show floor, with servers wheeling in bars so attendees could have a beverage while they continued to peruse the booths and mingle.

The only after-hours event scheduled was a closing-night reception Jan. 10 at the Savannah Westin Harbor. By the time the party started at 6 p.m., many of the conference attendees had bolted to tend to more-pressing matters at home. Less than a tenth of registrants attended the subdued Saturday evening soiree.

"I'm here to learn a few tips, pick up some pointers, hopefully make a couple of contacts, then I have to get home and take care of business," said Dover, FL, strawberry grower Bob Meadows.

Said Bo Herndon, president of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Associaiton, "With the difficult year that our industry had in 2009 and the overall depressed economy, we are very pleased to see the conference continue to grow in exhibitors and attendees. These numbers speak well that the Southeastern regional program [is] meeting the needs of our growers for education and product service information."

Next year's Southeastern Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference is scheduled for Jan. 6-9, again in Savannah.