A diversified row crop farmer, Donald Turner of North Dinwiddie, Va., has farmed for 41 years. He started farming with his father. This past year, he farmed 1,166 acres of cropland plus another 165 acres in timber for a total of 1,331 acres. He owns about a fourth of the land he farms and rents the rest.
Flue cured tobacco is an important crop for Turner. Last year, he grew 309 acres of tobacco, about half of it irrigated. This tobacco yielded 3,345 pounds per acre.
His other crops last year included 502 acres of soybeans yielding 37 bushels per acre, 304 acres of edible soybeans yielding 42 bushels per acre and 579 acres of wheat yielding 74 bushels per acre.
As a result of his success as a row crop farmer, Turner has been selected as the 2015 Virginia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other state winners as finalists for the overall award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
In 1998 and 2008, he placed high in state wheat yield contests.
He also produced about 4,000 bales of wheat straw last year. “We bale enough straw to deliver what the market requires,” says Turner. He sells straw to landscapers and contractors. Straw demand depends on the state of the construction industry. One year when demand was strong, he produced 20,000 straw bales. Turner also perfected the art of cutting wheat stalks at a tall height for baling into straw. That way, nutrients in the bottom of the stalks remain on the land to provide fertility for following crops.
Almost all of his crops are planted with conservation tillage. Conservation tillage helps him protect the environment. So does following a comprehensive nutrient management plan for applying fertilizer.
Turner is one of few tobacco farmers who use strip till planting. Strip till tobacco has more users in Dinwiddie County than any other area. Turner uses a home-built machine that combines planting, fertilizer application and strip tillage all in one pass over the field. Strip till helps protect young tobacco plants from damage by wind-blown sand.
In his greenhouses, he produces his own tobacco transplants. He follows a list of Good Agricultural Practices for tobacco. This program is patterned after one from the produce industry. It emphasizes producing good quality, clean tobacco, following farm safety practices and keeping accurate labor records.
He has invested in a centralized tobacco curing system. He’s also checking to see if a boiler system could use hot water to help cure his tobacco. “We’re also looking into solar panels to help save on our electricity costs,” he adds.
Turner has upgraded computer software to become more efficient in using global positioning-guided planting and spraying. He has also started using FarmLogic software for keeping records.
New grain storage facilities would be a major farm improvement and would help in marketing his crops. Turner currently uses forward pricing and direct sales for his grain crops, while tobacco is grown under contract for several companies.
For labor, Turner relies heavily on 12 H-2A guest workers from Mexico. They return year after year and live and work on the farm from March until November each year. They’re especially helpful in harvesting wheat straw and tobacco. Turner says longterm H-2A worker Marcos Valdez is a key employee on his farm.
The oilseed crop meadowfoam is one of the alternative crops he has grown. He worked with a group from Oregon in growing and marketing the meadowfoam.
Other new crops that may have a place on Turner’s farm include chickpeas and sesame seed.
Though his main winter crops are rye and wheat, he has experimented with radish as a cover crop. He looks on radish as a crop that might break hard pans in the soil.
He has also grown cotton over the years. He’s able to grow cotton, corn or grain sorghum depending on which offers the best returns.
This year, all of his soybeans are edible beans. He gets a premium price for the edible soybeans. He grows them for Montague Farms, a firm that specializes in edible soybeans for export.
Some of his other investments include a trucking business and rental housing. He’s working with a startup fertilizer entrepreneur who expects to need hauling services. Turner expects his rental housing to supplement his retirement income.
Turner was born in North Carolina where his dad worked in building construction. When Turner was four years old, his dad bought their farm in Virginia. As a youngster, Turner’s first farm job included handling tobacco leaves. He remembers driving a Ford tractor to pull sleds of tobacco to the barn.
As a young man, he worked about a year for the Brown & Williamson tobacco company. He was laid off from that job and returned to the farm. “I worked with my dad and we built custom houses during the winter months until he retired and I started farming full time,” recalls Turner.
He is active in several farm organizations. One provides advice to the local Extension Service office. He’s on Dinwiddie County Farm Bureau board. He received a conservation award from the Appomattox River Soil & Water Conservation District. He has been a member of a state cotton organization and was selected to attend a Chicago farm business seminar sponsored by Top Producer magazine.
His wife Janet is an Extension volunteer. She manages the farm office. At times, she helps on the farm by driving tractors and combines.
Donald and Janet have two sons, David and Jamie. Both sons work on the farm. “We work as a family,” says David. He specializes in computer work and analyzing data generated from the farm. Jamie specializes in metal work, welding and fabricating tools and implements.
Jamie built the strip till tobacco implement. “It has rippers under the rows, coulters behind the ripper bars and rolling baskets to firm the beds,” says Jamie. “We apply water with our starter fertilizer and we can fertilize both sides of the row. The planter is also guided by GPS with sub-inch accuracy.”
The Turners enjoy auto racing. David races a Legends car and Jamie has a Top Sportsman car. In 2008, the family participated in Mud Bogging and won 37 of the 42 events they entered.
Donald is proud that his sons have come back to work on the farm. He’s working with advisors to develop a plan to pass on the farm to his children and grandchildren.
The state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year award is Bobby Grisso with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service. Turner was nominated for the award by Michael Parrish, Extension agent in Dinwiddie County. “Donald is a role model for other farmers. He constantly explores new farming technology,” says Parrish.
As the Virginia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Turner will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative, the choice of either $1,000 in cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, the choice of either another $1,000 in cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 26th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed more than $1 million in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from Virginia include: Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater, 1990; Russell Inskeep of Culpepper, 1991; Harry Bennett of Covington, 1992; Hilton Hudson of Alton, 1993; Buck McCann of Carson, 1994; George M. Ashman, Jr. of Amelia, 1995; Bill Blalock of Baskerville, 1996; G. H. Peery III of Ceres, 1997; James Bennett of Red House, 1998; Ernest Copenhaver of Meadowview, 1999; John Davis of Port Royal, 2000; James Huffard III of Crockett, 2001; J. Hudson Reese of Scottsburg, 2002; Charles Parkerson of Suffolk, 2003; Lance Everett of Stony Creek, 2004; Monk Sanford of Orange, 2005; Paul House of Nokesville, 2006; Steve Berryman of Surry, 2007; Tim Sutphin of Dublin, 2008; Billy Bain of Dinwiddie, 2009; Wallick Harding of Jetersville, 2010; Donald Horsley of Virginia Beach, 2011; Maxwell Watkins of Sutherland, 2012; Lin Jones of New Canton, 2013; and Robert T. “Tom” Nixon II of Rapidan, 2014.
Virginia has had two overall winners, Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater in 1990 and Charles Parkerson of Suffolk in 2003.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit Turner’s farm and farms of the other nine finalists during the week of Aug. 10-14. The judges this year include John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years; Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist from Maryville, Tenn.; and farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011.