Bob Willis remembers it like it was yesterday. The year was 1961 and what he had always dreamed about as a youngster became a reality — he purchased 145 acres and was farming on his own.

“I was the youngest of 10 children,” says Willis of Hillsboro, Tenn. “So I knew to fulfill my dream of being a farmer it would have to be with my own operation.”

To make his vision come true, he started as a farmer laborer as a youngster. After graduating from high school in 1956, he did custom hay baling and farmed with his brothers, saving every penny possible.

“The first farm I purchased was rundown and needed a lot of work,” says Willis. “But I was on my own. The first crop was sweet potatoes.”

From that auspicious beginning, Willis now oversees a successful 4,500-acre operation with emphasis on variety and has been selected as the 2006 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for Tennessee.

He was selected in judging by the University of Tennessee Extension Service and was nominated by C. Dallas Manning.

Willis now joins eight other Southeastern state winners as a finalist for the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for 2006, which will be announced during the Sunbelt Expo in Moultrie, Ga., on Tuesday, Oct. 17.

As the Tennessee state winner, Willis will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a jacket and a $200 gift certificate from the Williamson-Dickie Company, a commemorative fireproof home safe from Misty Morn Safe Co., and a $500 gift certificate from Southern States. He is also now eligible for the $14,000 that will go to the overall winner and the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for the 17th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed more than $700,000 in cash awards and other honors since the award was initiated in 1990.

Today, there are 1,375 acres of corn used for grain that yield 154 bushels per acre and another 75 acres of corn used for silage with a yield of 25 tons per acre. Full-season soybeans are grown on 1,020 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 are 480 acres of wheat (70 bushels per acre), 10 acres of alfalfa hay (four tons per acre), 200 acres of grass clippings (two tons per acre) and 43 acres of wheat hay (25 tons per acre). His cattle operation includes 850 head of Holstein heifers and 130 head of beef cows.

Adversity has hit Willis twice. “My first wife, Vivian, died of a brain aneurysm at 37,” says Willis. “She played a major roll in the farm and was the mother of three children. My youngest son, John, was killed in 2000 in a farm accident. With my belief in God and through prayer, we’ve been able to continue.”

Willis is currently married to Carole. Together they have four grown children. Son Donald is vice-president of the corporation; daughter Kathy works at Duke University; step-daughter Wendy is a high school biology teacher; and step-son Michael is in gravel production and sales.

“I have been very blessed with two fine wives,” says Willis.

Previous state winners from Tennessee include: James 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 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 Amour III of Somerville, 2000; Malcolm Burchfiel of Newborn, 2001; Ed Rollins of Pulaski, 2002; John Smith of Puryear, 2003; Austin Anderson of Manchester, 2004; and John Litz of Morristown, 2005.

Jimmy Tosh of Henry was chosen as the Southeastern Farmer of the Year in 1998. This is also Willis’ second time as the Tennessee state winner (1994).