James E. Cooley of Chesnee, S.C., has developed a showplace farm growing peaches, strawberries and blackberries. Each year, Cooley, his wife, daughters and dedicated employees welcome thousands of visitors to the farm that has become an agricultural tourism destination.
As a result, Cooley has been selected as South Carolina state winner of the 2013 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Cooley joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
A farmer for 34 years, Cooley operates 1,188 acres, 407 rented acres and 781 owned acres. He says his Strawberry Hill U.S.A. farm is “a little piece of heaven on earth.”
Cooley raises peaches on 815 acres producing about 525 bushels per acre. “We market peaches in one-half bushel handle baskets,” he says, “We specialize in ‘hand-picked fuzzy’ peaches. My mother and father taught me to value every customer, whether they buy a small bag or a trailer load. We believe strongly in South Carolina taste and quality.”
His strawberries on 110 acres produce 3,000 to 6,000 gallons per acre. It costs about $5,000 per acre to grow strawberries. He grows blackberries on 43 acres plus Asian pears on 5.7 acres. Cooley irrigates a large portion of his peaches and all of his strawberries and blackberries.
After removing old peach trees, he plants double-cropped wheat and soybeans before establishing new orchards.
This past year, he grew fall strawberries on six acres. He is increasing fall strawberry plantings and adding new technology to this crop by building high tunnels, sometimes called hoop houses. These are similar to large unheated greenhouses that allow tractors and sprayers to pass underneath. High tunnels typically expand harvesting by 30 to 60 days.
“We market directly to customers through two retail stands,” says Cooley. The primary market is in northern Spartanburg County. The other is off an I-85 exit near Gaffney, S.C. “We sell to wholesale customers, and use refrigerated trucks to deliver this fruit,” he adds.
He advertises online and on billboards, television and radio. “Our farm hosts tours from schools, churches and nursing homes,” he says. “Tours help, but our most effective marketing tool is growing quality fruit that tastes good. In 2011, we took a major step to increase farm visitors by planting a ten-acre corn maze and a 20-acre pumpkin patch. We’ve been planting the maze and pumpkins ever since.”
His family owns a restaurant, the Strawberry Hill U.S.A. Café, at his primary market. “It has been a wonderful addition,” he adds. “Our customers enjoy our farm tours and then lunch and homemade ice cream.”
Cooley employs up to 200 laborers at peak times. Most are guest workers from Mexico. They enter the U.S. through the H-2A temporary farm labor program. He owns many houses where the workers stay. He also refurbished an old school he attended as a child to serve as housing for a hundred guest workers. H-2A regulations are strict and one of Cooley’s employees makes sure the housing complies with federal regulations. “Most of our H-2A workers return year after year,” he says.
In 2002, Cooley experienced a setback from an accident. At that time, his family, friends, workers and the community gave their time, their hearts, their prayers, and, literally, their blood to keep Cooley and his farm going. For this, he will always be grateful. He says, “I thank God for my family and friends.”
Protecting the environment is important. He uses erosion control blankets in his strawberries. He follows USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service designs for planting blackberries and peaches. He depends on beehives to aid plant pollination. He conserves water with drip irrigation on his strawberries. His farm also meets food safety certification standards.
Nearly a hundred years ago, his grandfather started the farm to grow cotton. Cooley’s father returned from World War II to raise peaches. Cooley now flies 400 American flags on the property to honor his father’s military service.
“I loved farming as a toddler,” recalls Cooley. One of his earliest jobs was driving tractors along with moving peaches to trucks. “I had to pay a nickel from my earnings for every peach I dropped,” he recalls. “My father instilled the value of not bruising a single peach.”
Cooley has been active in an Extension advisory committee, Spartanburg Soup Kitchen and Mobile Meals of Spartanburg, and supporting Chesnee High School athletic programs.
He serves on the advisory board for the Southern Regional Small Fruits Consortium and is a board member of the S.C. Peach Council. He’s a member of S.C. Farm Bureau. In 1995, he was named Conservation Farmer of the Year. He is also a member of the North Carolina Strawberry Growers Association that named him Grower of the Year in 2009. He was named South Carolina Young Farmer of the Year and has hosted International Fruit Tree Association tours. He also served on an advisory board for the Fifth District Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.
He freely shares land with Clemson University researchers whose projects include a peach variety trial, a strawberry pest management test and a blackberry virus experiment.
Since 2000, his wife Kathi has managed the Café. “Kathi has been a vital part of our success,” says Cooley. Kathi has been a volunteer youth sports coach, a supporter of the Spartanburg Soup Kitchen and Mobile Meals, and was active in the Cooley Springs Elementary School Parent Teacher Association.
James and Kathi have four daughters, Brandi, Brooke, Brittani and Bethani. Brandi is now vice president of the farm and in charge of marketing and tours. James says, “Brandi came up with the ideas for the corn maze, pumpkin patch and the school tours.” Bethani graduated from Clemson in 2012 and is working on the farm to install the high tunnels. Brooke is a cosmetologist who owns her own hair salon, and Brittani is a special education teacher.
“By the grace of God, we have been able to grow a small family farm into a large family farm,” says Cooley. “We may be one of the larger strawberry and blackberry farms in the state, but our success is due to the many people who believed in our ideas and dreams.”
One of his customers, Harry McMillan of Campobello, S.C., first suggested Cooley as a candidate for Farmer of the Year. Brian Callahan, assistant director of field operations with Clemson Extension, is state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year awards. Philip “Andy” Rollins, a Clemson Extension agent who works with fruit and vegetable growers in the South Carolina Upstate, nominated Cooley for the award. Rollins admires Cooley for his attention to detail in planting, growing, harvesting and marketing his crops. “His is truly a family farm,” says Rollins. “James inherited military discipline from his father. His appreciation for people is what makes him successful.”
As the South Carolina state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Cooley 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 PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
He is now eligible for the $15,000 that will go 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 and a Heritage gun safe from Southern States, the choice of another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, 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 24th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $924,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
Previous state winners from South Carolina include: Earl Thrailkill of Fort Lawn, 1990; Charles Snowden of Hemingway, 1991; Robert E. Connelly, Sr. of Ulmer, 1992; Henry Elliott, Sr. of Andrews, 1993; Ron Stephenson of Chester, 1994; Greg Hyman of Conway, 1995; Randy Lovett of Nichols, 1996; David Drew of Mullins, 1997; Jerry Edge of Conway, 1998; Blake McIntyre, III of Marion, 1999; Raymond Galloway of Darlington, 2000; W. R. Simpson of Manning, 2001; Gill Rogers of Hartsville, 2002; Harold Pitts of Newberry, 2003; Earl Thrailkill of Fort Lawn, 2004; Chalmers Carr of Ridge Spring, 2005; Steve Gamble of Sardinia, 2006; William Johnson of Conway, 2007; Kent Wannamaker of St. Matthews, 2008; Thomas DuRant of Gable, 2009; Marty Easler of Greeleyville, 2010; Kevin Elliott of Nichols, 2011; and Monty Rast of Cameron, 2012.
South Carolina has had one overall winner, Ron Stephenson of Chester in 1994.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Cooley farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 12-16. The judges this year include John McKissick, longtime University of Georgia Extension ag economist from Athens, Ga.; farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., the overall winner in 2008; and John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years.