Gary Blake of North Wilkesboro, N.C., bought eroded land overgrown with kudzu in 1978 and transformed it into a modern diversified farm.

Four generations of his family live on the farm, and three generations of his family manage key components of the operation. They derive most of their income from raising broiler and pullet chickens.

They also raise beef cattle, timber, tobacco, soybeans, field corn, sweet corn and other vegetable crops.

As a result of his accomplishments as a chicken grower and as a diversified farmer, Blake has been selected as the North Carolina winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Blake now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Last year, he farmed 410 acres, including 100 acres of rented land and 310 acres of owned land. This year, the Blakes are adding 50 acres of rented land and 110 acres of purchased land, along with more chicken houses. By the end of this year, the Blakes will have 16 broiler houses and six pullet houses.

If all goes as planned, the Blakes will grow more than 2.4 million chickens for Tyson Foods next year. It takes seven to eight weeks to raise a flock of broilers on their farm. Pullets arrive on their farm at one day of age and are kept for 16 to 22 weeks.

A full-time farmer for 34 years, Blake’s crops last year included corn on 45 acres yielding 100 bushels per acre, soybeans on 60 acres yielding 40 bushels per acre, hay and pasture on 286 acres yielding five tons of forage per acre, burley tobacco on 10 acres yielding 1,200 pounds per acre and a wide variety of vegetables on eight acres. In his greenhouses, he raises tobacco plants for transplanting on about 150 acres.

Blake previously grew flue-cured tobacco on 50 to 60 acres, but switched to burley because curing flue-cured tobacco became more expensive. “We cure our burley by hanging it in a chicken house and letting it air dry,” says Blake.

He grows his tobacco on contract with R. J. Reynolds. He sells vegetables at farmers’ markets, and he relies on word-of-mouth advertising to help sell his hay, tobacco transplants and other crops.

“I first began farming at age 14 when I leased some land with my dad and grew six acres of flue-cured tobacco,” Blake recalls.

After high school, he worked off the farm at a Western Electric manufacturing plant in Greensboro, N.C., and met his wife Lorene there. After leaving Western Electric, he went into business for himself, owning and operating gasoline service stations. “These were full service stations,” he recalls.