Tennessee's Bob Willis said he was “truly surprised” upon being named the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for 2006. Willis was honored at the Willie B. Withers Expo Luncheon held during the opening day of the 29th Annual Sunbelt Agricultural Expo in Moultrie, Ga.

It seemed fitting that Willis would win this year's award, with Tennessee being recognized as the Expo's Spotlight State for 2006.

The awards luncheon was one of the highlights of this year's Expo, where record attendance was reported during the three-day show. More than 1,200 exhibitors filled the Expo site and its 600-acre working farm, offering the latest in technology from the agricultural industry. The Sunbelt Ag Expo is the world's largest farm show with on-site row crops and field demonstrations.

“Winning this award is truly a surprise,” said Willis. “It is a tribute to many people who had stood by me and encouraged me during some very difficult times. Without their wonderful help and support, this award would not be possible.

“I am also very humbled by the award,” he added, “especially after meeting and seeing the operations of the other eight state winners. I also want to thank Swisher International and the Sunbelt Expo for caring about the agriculture industry and sponsoring the award.”

In closing his remarks, Willis said, “Agriculture makes life possible.”

As the Southeastern Farmer of the Year, Willis received a $14,000 cash award from Swisher International. He also received the use of a tractor of his choice for a year from Massey Ferguson North America; gift certificates totaling $1,000 from Southern States; a $500 cash award, a $500 gift certificate and a custom-designed jacket from the Williamson-Dickie Company; and $3,600 custom-designed gun safe from Misty Morn Safe Company.

Willis grew up the youngest of 10 children and realized at a very young age if he was going to fulfill his dream of becoming a fulltime farmer, it would have to be with his own operation. He purchased 145 acres in 1961 and planted his first crop — sweet potatoes.

“It was a rundown farm and needed a lot of work,” says Willis. “But at least I was on my own. After buying that farm, my first wife Vivan and I had to live cheap. We had to if we wanted to survive and grow.”

Today's operation has grown from the original 145 acres to 4,500 acres and includes a variety of crops. There are 1,375 acres of corn used for grain that yields 154 bushels per acre and another 75 acres of corn (25 tons per acre) that is used for silage. Soybeans (full season) cover 1,200 acres, yielding 50 bushels per acre, and double-cropped soybeans are grown on 480 acres with a yield of 35 bushels per acre.

Also included today are wheat that is grown on 480 acres and yielding 70 bushels per acre and 10 acres of alfalfa hay yielding 4 tons per acre. In addition, grass clippings cover 200 acres and yield 2 tons per acre and wheat hay is grown on 43 acres producing 25 tons per acre.

A cattle operation has been added and includes 850 head of Holstein heifers and 130 head of beef cows.

Willis is the second winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year from Tennessee. Jimmy Tosh of Henry was selected as the overall winner in 1998.

The other state winners for the 2006 Southeastern Farmer of the Year award included: Glenn Forrester of Columbia, Ala.; Damon Deas of Jennings, Fla.; Gary Paulk of Wray, Ga.; Sam Moore of Morgantown, Ky.; Brooks Aycock of Belzoni, Miss.; Tommy Porter of Concord, N.C.; Steve Gamble of Sardinia, S.C.; and Paul House of Nokesville, Va.

Also at the luncheon, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue announced he would be suggesting to the OneGeorgia Authority that it allocate $400,000 toward the Sunbelt Expo for continued growth.

The opening day of the Sunbelt Ag Expo also featured several ribbon cuttings, including the Farm Press Exhibitors Lounge and the University of Florida's new permanent exhibit building.

Also at the Sunbelt Ag Expo this year, Teresa Lasseter, administrator of USDA's Farm Service Agency announced a new conservation program to restore longleaf pine forests. The aim of the initiative is to reforest up to 250,000 acres in Georgia and eight other Southern states.

“Longleaf pine forests play an important role in the overall environmental and financial health of the South,” said Lasseter. “Over the past 100 years, longleaf forests declined from 60 million acres to fewer than 4 million acres. The new Conservation Reserve Program Longleaf Pine Initiative will increase longleaf pine forests by 250,000 acres throughout nine Southern states.”

Producers in the following states — the natural range of longleaf pine forests — may participate in the CRP Longleaf Pine Initiative: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

The project builds on more than 200,000 acres of longleaf pines already planted through other CRP projects.