I made my annual trip to Sunbelt Expo a few weeks back and upon my arrival sat down in the Media Center to look over the day’s upcoming events. What caught my eye was a slick four-page promotional piece for the 20th anniversary of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

To my surprise I knew, or knew of, three of the 10 candidates. I commented to one of my colleagues that one of these three farmers would have to win the award. I couldn’t imagine any better farmer than these folks.

Billy Bain, the candidate from Virginia personifies the competition. He is an outstanding production farmer who graciously opens his farm to visitors from all walks of life. As a lifelong promoter of agriculture, Billy has no equal — not that I know of.

For example, he hosted the 2008 Virginia Ag Expo, which is typically attended by more than a thousand folks. In prior years, the Expo had been dogged by rainy weather. To combat that possibility, Billy researched and found a rugged turf grass variety — native to Egypt I think. He planted the grass nearly a year in advance in the area of the exhibits and of most of the foot traffic for the Expo — just in case it rained.

I knew David Wright, the candidate from Alabama from my days at Auburn University. Alabama may be known for cotton and peanuts, but in the southern end of the state, ornamental crops are king.

David built one of the top horticulture operations in Alabama, and I suspect anywhere in the country. Like Billy Bain, he epitomizes the concept of opening agriculture up to the general public. David built a thriving family business despite numerous personal challenges — not the least of which being the loss of his right arm in a farming accident.

Though I didn’t know Thomas DuRant, the South Carolina representative among the august group of farmers, I certainly knew of his farm from having interviewed a number of his neighbors and from Clemson University researchers and Extension leaders.

Ironically, I was scheduled to visit Thomas’ a few days after Sunbelt Expo, but I didn’t know at the time I scheduled the farm visit that he was a nominee for the Farmer of the Year Award.

After looking at the pictures on the brochure and recognizing three of the finalists for the Farmer of the Year Award, I read the bios of all of the candidates. I shouldn’t have been surprised that each of these men is equally as impressive as candidates Bain, Wright and DuRant.

The full cast of nominees included: David Wright, Alabama; Orelan Johnson, Arkansas; Cary Lightsey, Florida; Bill Brimm, Georgia; Doug Langley, Kentucky; Donald Gant, Mississippi; Fred Pittillo, North Carolina; Thomas DuRant, South Carolina; Richard Atkinson, Tennessee and Billy Bain, Virginia.

Collectively, the group has over 300 years farming experience and farms more than 70,000 acres. Each of these men go well beyond farming — they promote agriculture and educate the general public about agriculture.

The winner, Cary Lightsey, from Florida, in his acceptance remarks said all he ever wanted to do, since he was a little boy, was ride horses and raise fat cattle. That he would win the Farmer of the Year Award, he said, was not even on his radar screen.

Lightsey said he asked his wife, Marcia, to drive for a while on their trip to Sunbelt Expo. He said he wanted to jot down some remarks — just in case he were to win the competition. Marcia said, “Honey I’ve seen the bios of the other candidates, and it will be a cold day in uhhh central Florida when you win with that level of competition.”

Humility aside, Cary Lightsey is a remarkable rancher/farmer who has lived his dream, building one of the nation’s top livestock operations along the way. Like all the candidates, he is an outspoken advocate for agriculture.

Having been a judge for the Alabama Farmer of Distinction competition a couple of times, I wondered how in the world the judges could select a winner from amongst so many highly qualified candidates.

The physical aspect of judging is difficult enough. I remember meeting at the airport in Montgomery before daylight and getting back well into the night for two or three days in a row to judge the Alabama contest. Doing that kind of job on a regional basis must have been exhausting at best.

A long time friend, Jimmy Carlisle, with the Alabama Farmers Federation, was one of the judges for this year’s Southeastern award. I asked him what it was like judging the farms and farmers. Jimmy had a one word answer that pretty well sums it up — tough.

The 10 state winners, who made up the 20th annual cast of candidates for the Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award truly personify the very best U.S. agriculture has to offer. All are winners in agriculture, life and business and a true credit to the industry they represent.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com