Cary Lightsey, a 56-year-old central Florida cattle rancher who says he’s “living out his dream” of being a cowboy, has been named the 2009 Swisher Sweets Sunbelt Southeastern Farmer of the Year.

Lightsey, who operates more than 36,000 acres of crop and pasture land on Brahma Island, just south of Orlando, is the latest in a long line of highly diversified, technologically advanced, environmentally sensitive farmers to be named Sunbelt Farmer of the Year.

“Wow, I can’t believe this,” said Lightsey. “On the way over, my wife was saying ‘it would be a cold day in Florida when I won the Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award.” (Temperatures dropped into the upper 30s and lower 40s Tuesday morning (Oct. 20) around Moultrie, Ga., the site of the Sunbelt Expo, just across the state line from Florida.

He was one of 10 state winners who were honored at this year’s Sunbelt Expo. The 10 included a diverse group of farmers, who grow crops ranging from fruits and vegetables to peanuts. This was the 20th year for the Farmer of the Year Award.

“Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to be a cowboy,” said Lightsey, in accepting the award. “I wanted to ride a horse and I wanted to grow big cattle. Being able to do that and to be able to win this award here in front of my family is a dream come true.”

A sixth-generation rancher, whose family came to central Florida in the 1850s, Lightsey typically pre-conditions 2,250 yearlings each year. He sells 1,080 head through Internet and local livestock auctions and retains 780 heifers for replacements. He also retains ownership on 1,710 head per year fed out in Texas feed lots.

He operates a total of 36,200 acres, including 17,800 rented and 18,400 acres owned. Besides raising cattle, he grows 420 acres of irrigated citrus, 300 acres of bahiagrass sod, 450 acres of bahia for seed and 2,800 acres of forage.

Lightsey says that, like his forefathers, he’s determined to leave his family’s farming operation better than “when we started it. For that reason, we have decided to place 80 percent of our farming operation in conservation easement programs.

“Until 2009, we in Florida were losing 150,000 acres per year to concrete and asphalt,” said Lightsey. “We have got to do something to address that issue.”

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