When competing based on one’s accomplishments, we like to focus on what distinguishes each competitor from the rest. Though the Swisher Sweets Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year contest looks at the differences between individuals, they also acknowledge that each of the ten state winners have many things in common. They all exemplify excellence in agriculture, have a passion for their work, and serve as pillars in their community. Sunbelt Expo Executive Director Chip Blalock says, “The diversity of operations is always a highlight of the Farmer of the Year program. We have had traditional row crops, livestock, catfish, trout, alligators, citrus, fruits and vegetables to name a few.” Despite what makes them different, these five state winners share incredible work ethic and a love for agriculture.
Charles Edwin Isbell Jr. or “CJ” hails from Hanover County, Virginia. As a third-generation farmer, he has had the opportunity to see first-hand how much the industry has advanced through his operation. What started as a humble laying hen enterprise has transformed into a sustainable feeder pigs and cattle operation alongside hay, corn, wheat, barley, and soybeans crops. Isbell has given back to his community through land stewardship, volunteer work, and serving as a leader in various organizations. By finding innovative solutions to common industry challenges, such as labor demands and closing the gap between farm and table, Isbell has demonstrated qualities that make him an exceptional agricultural community leader. With help from his wife, kids, and father, this family farm has adapted and innovated over time.
Jay Yeargin of Weakley County, Tennessee, started with just 60 acres, which he expanded to its current 2,700 acres through ambition and hard work. This allowed him to grow and diversify his operation over the years to produce corn, soybeans, hay, and wheat crops, which he stores and transports with his equipment. Yeargin also has a thriving cow-calf enterprise and offers custom dozer, mowing, and track hoe work. Through multiple marketing avenues and careful management decisions, Yeargin can attain the best prices for his products. His commitment to excellence goes beyond his farm and conservation work; it extends to the local, state, and national level through his involvement in his community and the agriculture industry.
For Stephen Kelley, family is part of the farm. This Kentucky native got his start through his grandparent’s and parent’s operations alongside his brother. After attaining a college education, he and his brother acquired a 600-acre lot, which provided challenges that helped him grow. Kelley now owns over 2500 acres that run on a solar electricity system, and he specializes in producing timber, corn, wheat, and soybeans. Kelley routinely evaluates efficiency, which allows him to save on input, time, and labor costs. He actively participates in multiple conservation programs and serves in the community. His devotion to conservation and farming has been passed down to his children.
Robert “Bob” Martin Hall hails from York, South Carolina, where his fruit and vegetable operation is located. As the area his family had farmer for over a century and a half transformed into a more suburban area, a unique opportunity arose for Hall and his family, the chance to create a family-owned, roadside stand offering fresh fruits and vegetables. Family plays a key role managing the business and overcoming the many challenges farmers face. Alongside his wife, Hall has taken on roles within the community that allow them to lead and give back. They have made a top-notch, diversified agri-tourism destination that feeds directly into the local community. Hall has combined agricultural innovation, a passion for sustainable production, employee and customer satisfaction, and to develop a successful business.
James Lamb grew up in Sampson County, North Carolina, where his family operation was located. In a unique turn of events, Lamb had the opportunity to return following college for a job with Prestage Farms. There he found his passion for pig farming, which he soon brought back to his own farm. Lamb now raises swine alongside his cattle, corn, soybean, millet, and Bermuda grass enterprises, all while serving in various leadership positions. Biosecurity and environmental conservation are some of Lamb’s top priorities on the farm. He always finds ways to advocate and give back to his community and the agriculture industry.
Within each state, candidates are nominated, and from them, a winner is chosen. Each state winner receives a $2,500 cash prize alongside an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Ag Expo and a variety of other gifts. Out of the ten state winners, an overall Farmer of the Year winner is chosen. Each winner demonstrates excellence in agriculture and shows a commitment to the betterment of the agriculture industry.