James Cooley, SC

James Cooley, SC

(Moultrie, Ga.)—South Carolina peach and strawberry grower James Cooley, who built a beautiful farm that has become an agricultural tourism destination, has been selected as the overall winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award for 2013.

Cooley was named as the overall winner during the Willie B. Withers Luncheon held on the opening day of the 2013 Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show. Cooley was chosen as Farmer of the Year over nine other state winners who were finalists for the award.

The Farmer of the Year award recognizes excellence in agricultural production and farm management, along with leadership in farm and community organizations. The award also honors family contributions in producing safe and abundant supplies of food, fiber and shelter products for U.S. consumers.

Peter Ghiloni, president and chief executive officer of Swisher International, Inc., of Jacksonville, Fla., praised Cooley for his farming accomplishments. “James and his family are outstanding representatives of the farming industry, and it is an honor for our company and our Swisher Sweets cigar brand to recognize the Cooleys for their many accomplishments,” said Ghiloni.

Ron Carroll, Swisher’s vice president of marketing, presented Cooley with a $15,000 check at the farm show “James and his family welcome thousands of visitors to their farm each year,” said Carroll. “They are also outstanding in how they protect the environment and in how they treat their employees and their customers.”

Cooley expressed his appreciation to Swisher International, the Sunbelt Expo and the other award sponsors. “It is a humbling experience to be named Farmer of the Year, especially after meeting the other nine state winners,” he said. “These are outstanding farmers. They and their families contribute much to the agricultural industry and to their communities.”

Cooley and his family live in Chesnee, S.C. In addition to peaches and strawberries, he also grows blackberries and pears, along with wheat and soybeans on his 1,188-acre farm. He markets his fruit crops directly to consumers from two retail produce sheds, one located on the farm and another located near an exit on the heavily traveled I-85 highway.

At times, he employs up to 200 workers, most of them guest laborers from Mexico. Many of these workers return to his farm year after year.

Cooley also overcame life-threatening injuries from a serious motorcycle accident in 2002. He credits family members, friends, employees and members of their community for their prayers and support in keeping the farm going while he recovered from his injuries. Cooley says the grace of God has allowed his family to prosper on their farm. “Our success is due to many people who have believed in our ideas and dreams,” he added.

His wife Kathi manages a café located on the farm. Their daughters Brandi and Bethani also hold key positions in the farming business. Brandi is a vice president of the farm in charge of marketing. She came up with ideas for hosting a corn maze, a pumpkin patch and tours for school children. Bethani is working on the farm to install high tunnels that are similar to large unheated greenhouses for use in raising fall strawberries. James and Kathi also have two other daughters, Brooke and Brittani, who work off the farm.

The new Farmer of the Year was selected for the honor by three judges who visited his farm and the farms of the other nine state winners during early August of this year. The judges included John McKissick, a longtime University of Georgia Extension agricultural economist from Athens, Ga., farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., who was selected as the overall winner of the award in 2008, and John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension soybean specialist from Tifton, Ga.

McKissick, this year’s senior judge, said Cooley’s farm is one of the best farming operations he has ever seen. “They are diversified in their fruit and agricultural tourism operations,” said McKissick. He also praised the farm for its outstanding management of labor, production and finances.

The judges were impressed with the appearance and beauty of Cooley’s farm, along with his innovations in direct marketing of his crops to consumers. “They have short- and long-term strategic farm goals involving the entire family,” added McKissick. “They have enriched their community and the farming industry by sharing their farming resources with the research and education communities.”

McKissick says the judges also praised the Cooley family for their generosity, faith, hard work and courage. “They represent the strength of southeastern agriculture,” McKissick added.

As the Southeastern Farmer of the Year, Cooley will receive a $15,000 cash award plus $2,500 as a state winner from Swisher international. He will also receive the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, a $500 gift certificate and a Heritage gun safe from the 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 jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

Each state winner received a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International, a $500 gift certificate from the 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.

The other state winners this year include Annie Dee of Aliceville, Ala., Phillip DeSalvo of Center Ridge, Ark., John Scott Long of Palm City, Fla., Will Harris of Bluffton, Ga., Scott Travis of Cox’s Creek, Ky., Abbott Myers of Dundee, Miss., Wilbur Earp of Winnabow, N.C., Richard Jameson of Brownsville, Tenn., and Lin Jones of New Canton, Va.