James E. Cooley operates 1,118 acres, 407 is rented and 781 acres are owned. And the Chesnee, S.C., farmer grows peaches, strawberries and blackberries on the family operation.

Each year, Cooley, his wife, daughters and dedicated employees welcome thousands of visitors to the farm that has become an agricultural tourism destination.

As a result, Cooley has been selected as South Carolina state winner of the 2013 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Cooley joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

A farmer for 34 years, Cooley operates 1,188 acres, 407 rented acres and 781 owned acres. He says his Strawberry Hill U.S.A. farm is “a little piece of heaven on earth.”

Cooley raises peaches on 815 acres producing about 525 bushels per acre. “We market peaches in one-half bushel handle baskets,” he says, “We specialize in ‘hand-picked fuzzy’ peaches. My mother and father taught me to value every customer, whether they buy a small bag or a trailer load. We believe strongly in South Carolina taste and quality.”

His strawberries on 110 acres produce 3,000 to 6,000 gallons per acre. It costs about $5,000 per acre to grow strawberries. He grows blackberries on 43 acres plus Asian pears on 5.7 acres. Cooley irrigates a large portion of his peaches and all of his strawberries and blackberries.

After removing old peach trees, he plants double-cropped wheat and soybeans before establishing new orchards. 

This past year, he grew fall strawberries on six acres. He is increasing fall strawberry plantings and adding new technology to this crop by building high tunnels, sometimes called hoop houses. These are similar to large unheated greenhouses that allow tractors and sprayers to pass underneath. High tunnels typically expand harvesting by 30 to 60 days.