By the time Damon Deas reached the age of six years old, he knew what he wanted to be — a farmer. At eight years old, he was already driving a Farmall tractor, pulling the tobacco sled.

“My younger brother, Roger, and I enjoyed working on the farm and growing up as country boys,” says Deas. “My love for farming grew until it was impossible for me to get farming out of my blood or dirt from under my fingernails.”

He left the grassroots education after high school as his father insisted on a college education. By the time 1974 rolled around, however, he was back on the farm as a full partner and led the organization of Deas Brothers Farms in 1985.

Steady and successful growth of Deas Farms plus making major changes in the operation over the years have led to Deas being selected as the 2006 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for Florida. He was selected for the honor in judging conducted by the Florida Farm Bureau and was nominated by Dan Buchanan.

Deas 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 Florida state winner, Deas will 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.

His selection also marks the second time he has been chosen as the Florida state winner. Many positive and successful changes have been made in the operation since he was originally chosen in 2000.

“We have added peanuts. Plus, we were very scattered and had tobacco in about 20 locations,” says Deas, who is the last farmer in Hamilton County growing tobacco. “Now, everything is all together. In 2002, my brother and I convinced dad to sell out our brood cow and calf herds in order to purchase replacement heifers to breed and sell yearly.”

The operation, which has grown from 1,322 acres to over 2,650 acres under his leadership, has 300 acres of irrigated tobacco, yielding 1,850 pounds per acre. There’s also 450 acres of field corn, yielding 120 bushels per acre, 45 acres of hay, producing six tons per acre and 280 acres of cow peas, yielding 20 bushels per acre. They recently added peanuts which cover 650 acres with a yield of 3,100 pounds per acre.

The cattle operation now includes 100 head of crossbreed beef cows and 700 head of crossbreed heifers.

Deas’ wife Becky has also been involved in the operation during their 26 years of marriage. They have two sons, Daniel 19, and Zach 12. “It’s my dream they will continue our family farm tradition,” says Deas.

Previous state winners from Florida include: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1990 and 1991; Wayne Wiggins of Plant City, 1992; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Bill Long of Apopka, 1994; Richard Barber, Jr. of Ocala, 1995; Al Bellotto of Lakeland, 1996; Rex Clonts, Jr., of Apopka, 1997; John Hoblick of DeLeon Springs, 1998; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2000; Gene Batson of Mount Dora, 2001; Will Putman III of Alturas, 2002; Sonny Williamson, Jr., of Okeechobee, 2003; Dale Sauls of Anthony, Fla., 2004 and Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005.

Ernie Nunez (1991), Leroy Baldwin (1993), Rex Clonts (1997), Doug Holmberg (1999) and Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee (2005) were chosen as the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.