Mike Robinson, Tennessee

At Sugartree Farms near Belvidere, Tenn., Mike Robinson has built a successful family row crop and beef cattle farm. He also owns Sugartree Feeds, a store that adds value to some of his grain, hay and straw.

A farmer for 35 years, Robinson owns 1,108 acres and rents 2,350 acres. He grows corn on 1,200 acres, wheat on 420 acres and oats on 106 acres. He raises full season soybeans on 1,056 acres and doublecropped soybeans on 594 acres. He also raises 250 acres of hay, has about 200 acres in pasture and raises timber on 158 acres.

As a result of his success as a row crop and beef cattle producer, Robinson has been selected as the state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. He joins nine other individuals as finalists for the overall award that will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at the Sunbelt Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

His cattle herd includes 125 cows, primarily Angus. The herd produced 120 calves last year that he sold at 600 pounds. The herd includes five registered Angus bulls. He increased his cattle numbers last year when he bought a new herd. He retains about 10% of his heifers as replacements.

Until 2004, he ran a dairy and milked Jersey cows. Robinson converted his milk barn into the feed store where he sells a portion of the farm’s corn and hay.

With last year’s corn yields at 180 bushels per acre for dryland and 230 bushels per acre for irrigated land, he placed third in both no-till irrigated and dryland categories of the National Corn Growers Association’s state yield contest. He uses chicken litter to reduce fertilizer costs on some of his corn.

His full season soybeans yielded 55 bushels per acre and his doublecropped soybeans yielded 50 bushels per acre. His wheat produced 90 bushels per acre and his oats yielded 100 bushels per acre.

He also grows wheat for hay and straw, and rye for straw. His hay includes orchardgrass and a new alfalfa planting. One of his best tools is a Bale Bandit that can bundle 21 bales at a time, and is a big labor saver when handling and shipping hay and straw. He also adopted precision farming technology such as automated steering, yield monitoring and a sprayer system that prevents overlaps.

Robinson considers timber an important commodity, and uses a forestry consultant to determine when to cut trees. He recently sold red cedar logs to an Amish buyer for use in manufactured wood products.

“Marketing is important for my business,” says Robinson. He uses a marketing consultant and sells most of his grain directly to processors or end users, though some is sold at the farm feed store. Where crop share leases are involved, he often markets grain at local elevators.

He has about 225,000 bushels of grain storage, and stores about 190,000 bushels of corn, 30,000 bushels of soybeans and 5,000 bushels of wheat.

He sells about 27,000 bushels of corn and 12,000 small bales of hay at the store. He also mixes oats, corn, alfalfa and molasses to make feeds for cattle, goats and horses that he sells from the store. He even makes a special quail feed.

The store is also a retailer for Farm King equipment such as grain augers, grain vacuums, nitrogen applicators, tedders and disc mowers. Robinson sees the feed store and machinery dealership as businesses his children can operate while staying on the farm.

A spring storm blew off a portion of the roof at the feed store. That forced Robinson to move the store to the other end of the old dairy barn that turned out to be a better location for the store.

Robinson was young when he started farming. One of his first farm jobs as a child was stacking hay. His dad worked in a heating and air conditioning business and had a 35-acre farm on the side. “I milked a Jersey cow in high school, and sold milk to our neighbors,” says Robinson. “That led me to selling milk to another dairy farm and working for them.” He ended up buying the dairy he worked for.

He borrowed money from his grandfather, and bought 18 acres while in the 11th grade. “As a youth, I had a dream of being a full time farmer,” he says. “Today my wife and I are living our dream.”

Robinson occasionally provides custom farm work to neighboring farms. He has been adding irrigation, and plans to expand irrigation on a farm he bought with river access.

Robinson has been a 30-year Farm Bureau member. He served on the Franklin County Soil Conservation District board, and a Farm Credit advisory board. He was on the board of CFW Waste Management, a local group that promotes animal waste utilization while protecting the environment. He was a member of the Franklin County Livestock Association and a supporter of Farm-City activities.

He has been active in state Farm Bureau and the Cattlemen’s Association activities, and has attended Tennessee and National Council of Farmer Cooperatives meetings. He has been an American Farm Bureau voting delegate and a member of the National Corn Growers Association.

Mike and his wife Krislyn have been active in Lexie Church of Christ where they help with youth activities. Krislyn is a former teacher and a big help on the farm, according to Mike. In high school she partnered with an uncle in raising hogs. “I wanted to marry a farmer, and I got one,” she says. Krislyn is active in Franklin County Farm Bureau Women, Farm-City activities and has been a supporter of Winchester Christian Academy and Riverside Christian Academy.

They have four children. Twin sons Tracy and Kary are young adults, and daughters KayLee and Callie Pearl are teens. In high school, the twins excelled in robot design competition, a skill that serves them well now on the farm. They’ve designed improved parts for the Bale Bandit and a feed bagging system for use at the store.

KayLee has been active in 4-H and runs sideline businesses selling eggs and raising sweet corn. This summer, KayLee is working at a veterinary clinic. Callie Pearl also is active in 4-H, sold rabbits she raised, helps sell eggs and also helps run the family’s Dachshund dog breeding sideline business. The twin boys started the dog breeding business and passed it on to their sisters.

KayLee also keeps horses for pleasure riding. The family also raises Halflingers, a small breed of draft horse that they occasionally use to till their garden.

Mike says he wouldn’t be surprised to see his sons and daughters someday significantly expand the family’s on-farm feed store.

Robert Burns with the Tennessee Cooperative Extension Service coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Robinson was nominated for the honor by C. Dallas Manning, Extension area farm management specialist. “Mike and his family are excellent resource managers and they operate with little hired labor,” says Manning.

Ed Burns, Extension agent in Franklin County, Tenn., admires how Robinson’s family members are so supportive of the farm.

As the Tennessee state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Robinson will now 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 and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI and a Henry Golden Boy “American Farmer Tribute Edition” rifle from Reinke Irrigation.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 28th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,080,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from Tennessee include: James R. Graham of Newport, 1990; Burl Ottinger of Parrottsville, 1991; Dwaine Peters of Madisonville, 1992; Edward Wilson of Cleveland, 1993; Bob Willis of Hillsboro, 1994; Bobby W. Vannatta of Bell Buckle, 1995; George McDonald of Riddleton, 1996; Jimmy Gaylord of Sharon, 1997; Jimmy Tosh of Henry, 1998; Eugene Pugh, Jr. of Halls, 1999; Harris Armour of Somerville, 2000; Malcolm Burchfiel of Newbern, 2001; Ed Rollins of Pulaski, 2002; John Smith of Puryear, 2003; Austin Anderson of Manchester, 2004; John Litz of Morristown, 2005; Bob Willis of Hillsboro, 2006; Grant Norwood of Paris, 2007; Jerry Ray of Tullahoma, 2008; Richard Atkinson of Belvidere, 2009; Brad Black of Vonore, 2010; Mac Pate of Maryville, 2011; Steve Dixon of Estill Springs, 2012; Richard Jameson of Brownsville, 2013; John Keller of Maryville, 2014; George Clay of Pelham, 2015; and James Haskew of South Pittsburg, 2016.

Tennessee has had two overall winners, Jimmy Tosh of Henry in 1998 and Bob Willis of Hillsboro in 2006.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit Robinson’s farm and the farms of the other nine state finalists during the week of Aug. 7-11. The judges this year include farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., who was the overall winner in 2011; Charles Snipes, retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist from Greenville, Miss.; and beef cattle rancher Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, Fla., who was the overall winner in 2009.