At 19 years of age and armed with a 1964 Chevrolet convertible and a tool box, Paul House set sail on his farming venture in 1968.

“I came home from college for Christmas break in 1967 and my father told me about a neighboring farm for lease,” House recalls. “After a lot of discussion and planning, we applied for a loan and leased 174 acres.

“All I had to my name at that time was that Chevrolet convertible and a tool box” he adds. “We started with 35 springer heifers and grew corn and hay for feed while I finished my first year of college. I got married in June, 1968, and we started shipping milk on July 17.”

That gamble in 1968 has led to an outstanding 38-year agricultural career for House, and his selection as the 2006 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for Virginia. He was selected for the honor in judging conducted by the Virginia Tech Extension Service and was nominated by Tim Mize.

House now joins eight other Southeastern state winners as a finalist for the Swisher Sweets/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 Virginia state winner, House will now 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 more than $700,000 in cash awards and other honors since the award was initiated in 1990.

Today’s farm has swelled to 3,188 acres with dairy still being the backbone of the operation. There are 280 dairy cows with a rolling herd average of 21,000 pounds of milk per year. Also included are 250 head of dairy calves/heifers and 70 head of dairy steers.

Turf grass (sod) is grown on 1,300 acres (450 irrigated) while corn covers 785 acres with a 103-bushel per acre yield. There are 200 acres of wheat yielding 45 bushels per acre and 122 acres of hay producing 2.75 tons per acre.

Sod has rapidly become a major factor in his operation. “We have two tractor-trailers for delivering sod to the surrounding areas as well as a pick-up truck service for landscapers and homeowners,” he explains.

“We planted our first sod fields in 1997 on 100 acres,” he adds. “The acreage has increased every year and now covers more than 1,300 acres. Sod has become the No. 1 income generator, out-selling milk, grain and livestock.”

House’s wife, Flora, is also involved in the family operation with bookkeeping and scheduling of the trucks for sod deliveries. They have three grown children: daughter Vicki Elmore manages a Nationwide Insurance office; daughter Stephanie House has returned home to work in the farm office; and son Kyle is involved on the farm with the dairy and sod operations.

Previous state winners from Virginia include: Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater, 1990; Russell Inskeep of Culpeper, 1991; Harry Bennett of Covington, 1992; Hilton Hudson of Alton, 1993; Merle (Buck) McCann of Carson, 1994; George M. Ashman of Amelia, 1995; Bill Blalock of Baskerville, 1996; G. H. Peery, III of Ceres, 1997; James A. Bennett of Red House, 1998; Ernest Copenhaver of Meadowview, 1999; John F. Davis of Port Royal, 2000; Jim Huffard of Crockett,2001; J. Hudson Reese of Scottsburg, 2002; Charles Parkerson of Suffolk, 2003; Lance Everett of Stony Creek, 2004; and Monk Sanford of Orange, 2005.

Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater was the first recipient of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award in 1990. Virginia added its second overall winner in 2003 with Charles Parkerson of Suffolk.