If Gary Paulk is known as the “Muscadine Man” around Wray, Ga., it’s easy to understand why. After all, he is the largest muscadine grape grower in the Southeast and very possibly the largest in the United States.

“We do everything in the muscadine grape business from planting, growing and processing,” says Paulk. “Plus, we sell fresh muscadines to supermarket chains and have grown into bottling muscadine juices.”

All of Paulk’s eggs, however, aren’t in one basket as he manages a versatile operation and has been selected as the 2006 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for Georgia. He was chosen for the honor in judging conducted by the University of Georgia Extension Service and was nominated by Phillip Edwards.

Paulk now joins eight other Southeastern state winners as a finalist for the Swisher Sweet/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 Georgia state winner, Paulk 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 over $700,000 in cash awards and other honors since the award was initiated in 1990.

Paulk, the son of a fourth-generation farmer, grew up working in production agriculture. “I managed my father’s hog operation during the day,” says Paulk. “We had a farrow to finish operation with 300 sows. The average delivery was 100 plus pigs per week to local markets.”

But the itch to have his own operation began and he rented cropland and equipment for use at night. Peanuts and corn were his first crops, but he soon began to transition into muscadine grape production as he continued to rent and purchase acreage.

From a 100-acre start, today’s farm includes more than 1,368 acres. There’s 192 acres of irrigated muscadine grapes with a 5,000-pound per acre yield. Cotton is still part of the operation and covers 318 irrigated acres, yielding 800 pounds per acre. Also included are 160 acres of peanuts (3,500 pounds per acre), 80 acres of pecans, 350 acres of timber and eight acres of blueberries.

The muscadine operation was expanded with the formation of Muscadine Products Corporation and today produces 30,000 gallons of bulk muscadine juice, 5,000 cases of bottled juice and 2,200 cases of muscadine seed and skin nutraceuticals.

“The majority of the grape crop is a farm-to-fresh market enterprise,” says Paulk.

The peanuts are marketed by a local grain dealer while the cotton is purchased by a local gin. Pecans go to a local buyer and the blueberries will be sold to local buyers.

Paulk’s wife Ann, in addition to being a kindergarden teacher, also keeps books for the farm. They have four children — son Chris who works for the muscadine corporation; son Eric, who is a medical resident in Greenville, N.C.; daughter Amy, who attends Valdosta State; and daughter Anna is a junior in high school.

Previous Georgia state winners include: Timothy McMillan of Enigma, 1990; Bud Butcher

of Senoia, 1991; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 1992; John Morgan of Mystic, 1993; Alan Verner of Rutledge, 1994; Donnie Smith of Willachoochee, 1995; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 1996; Thomas Coleman, Jr. of Hartsville, 1997; Glenn Heard of Bainbridge, 1998; Bob McLendon of Leary, 1999; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 2000; Daniel Johnson of Alma, 2001; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 2002; Jim Donaldson of Metter, 2003; Joseph Boddiford, Jr., of Sylvania, 2004; and Jimmy Webb of Leary, 2005.

James Lee Adams of Camilla was selected as the Southeastern Farmer of the Year in 2000 and Armond Morris of Ocilla gave Georgia it second overall winner in 2002.