McCleskey Cotton Company, in Bronwood, Ga., was named Southeast Gin of the Year.

Jimmy Sanford, a cotton farmer and business leader in Prattville, Ala.,, was presented the Southern Cotton Growers Grower Achievement Award.

And the late Billy Carter, a North Carolina cotton farmer and long-time executive director of the North Carolina Cotton Growers Association, was inducted into the Southern Cotton Growers Hall of Fame during the recent Southern-Southeastern cotton growers and ginners annual meeting in Atlanta.

The Southeastern Cotton Ginners Association made a slight change in their annual top award this year, recognizing that every past winner has noted the prestigious award is a company effort. “With all the new technology available today, ginning has become very much a team effort, and the Board of Directors of our organization felt it would be more meaningful to select a gin for our top award,” says Robbie Water, president of the organization.

Though the 2013 award is a gin award, make no mistake the heart and soul of McCleskey Cotton Company, including the gin, is owner and co-founder Ronnie Lee. Lee’s son, Ron Lee, manager of the gin and Gin Engineer Keith Gill shared in accepting the award.

In announcing the award, Waters said, “Will Rogers once said, to be successful is simple, you just have to know what you do, love what you do, and believe in what you do.”

“Ronnie Lee and all the people who run McClesky Cotton Company, including the gin, personify Will Roger’s words,” Waters adds.

The gin started in 1995, built and was operated by Ronnie Lee and two partners.

In their first year, they ginned 12,000 bales of cotton and for the next seven years ginned between 25,000 and 30,000 bales.

In 2003, Ronnie Lee bought the gin outright. With the help of his son, Ron, and a former gin builder, now gin engineer, Keith Gill they began to build the business into one of the top producing and highest qualities gins in the Southeast.

Last year McCleskey ginned 96,000 bales of cotton.

For the senior Lee, Jan. 26 was a big day. In addition to being his birthday, his cotton gin, the crown jewel of McClesky Farming Company, was named top cotton gin in the Southeast, and he won a raffle during the Southern-Southeastern annual meeting for a highly coveted .270 caliber hunting rifle.

“Having this audience, filled with so many people I admire so much, sing Happy Birthday to me was truly a big thrill,” Lee says.

Active in cotton and peanut groups

During his career, Lee has been active in both peanut and cotton leadership groups and has won numerous awards, including the 2010 Farm Press High Cotton Award.

He and his company, are very supportive of local non-profits and charities and have raised and donated thousands of dollars to the American Cancer Society.

They have a conservationist approach to farming that includes water conservation and cutting edge farming methods. They were awarded with the 2010 business of the year from the Terrell County Chamber of Commerce.

Lee’s farming family, which includes sons Ron (Ronald C. Lee, Jr.), Neil and Chandler grow 3,500 to 4,200 acres of cotton, 900 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat, and has a cow-calf operation.

It also includes McCleskey Cotton Company, a ginning and warehousing operation, and RCL Flying Service, an agricultural aerial spraying business. In addition, the operation does custom harvesting.

Lee is quick to point out that it’s truly a family operation — Ron operates the gin and markets the crop, Neil runs the day-to-day farming operation, and Chandler also works in the farming enterprise.

“It has taken us 17 years in the cotton ginning business to get to this place, and I’m truly honored to accept this award on behalf of our employees,” Lee says.

“I’m proud of all three of my sons, and on this day especially of Ron, who has worked so hard to make our ginning operation a success.

“I’m equally as proud of Keith Gill. I don’t know of a more deserving person in the cotton business to get an award recognizing excellence in cotton ginning,” Lee says.

The Southern Cotton Producers Association does not award the Cotton Producers Recognition Award every year. It goes to a person who has contributed significantly to the cotton industry over a period of years, and former winners are truly a who’s who in the cotton business.

The 2013 Award was presented to Jimmy Sanford, an Autauga County, Ala., cotton grower and businessman.

Sanford served as Chairman of Home Place Farms, Inc. until Dec. 31, 2008. He has been a director of Alabama Power Co. since 1983, and he is president of the Autauga Quality Cotton Association (AQCA) in Prattville, Alabama.

AQCA is one of the leading cotton marketing cooperatives in the United States. Sanford was one of the original founders of the organization in 1967.

From Texas to North Carolina

Once comprised of a small group of central Alabama growers, AQCA membership has grown to encompass over 1,000 cotton producers in nine states from Texas to North Carolina.

Sanford is a true blue blood among U.S. cotton farmers. His grandparents and great-grandparents, Will Howard Smith and McQueen Smith owned and operated McQueen-Smith Farms, one of the largest and most influential farming operations in the country.

Home Place Farms is one of several successful farming operations with roots that go back to McQueen Smith Farms.

Sanford, whose family helped build the agriculture program at Auburn University, was recently named to the Land-Grant University’s top governing body, the Board of Trustees.

Sanford will represent District Four on the Auburn University Board.

“As I look out over the audience here at the Southern-Southeastern annual meeting, I see so many people who are much more worthy of this award than me.

“I truly appreciate this award, and feel like I have been rewarded so richly by the many friends and colleagues who are in the audience today,” Sanford says.

Billy Carter was born and raised on a cotton farm in Scotland Neck, N.C.

He was a successful farmer and prided himself on always giving back to the industry he loved. His life was cut short from injuries received in an automobile accident a couple of years back, but the footprint he leaves on the cotton industry continues to be huge.

Carter was named posthumously to the Southern Cotton Growers Hall of Fame during the organization’s recent annual meeting in Atlanta.

His long-time friend and colleague Ronnie Fleming, a fellow Scotland Neck cotton farmer, gave a moving and heart-felt presentation of the award to Carter’s widow Beverly Carter, who accepted the award on her late husband’s behalf.

“The Hall of Fame award is not given based on positions held or significant contributions to the cotton industry, it’s given for a lifetime commitment of excellence to cotton, from production to marketing,” Fleming says.

“Only three other cotton industry leaders have been named to the Hall of Honor prior to Carter’s induction,” he adds.

Billy Carter served tirelessly to help local, state and national cotton organizations while he was an active cotton farmer.

In 2002, he retired from cotton farming to head the North Carolina Cotton Growers Association.

Early on he saw the vital importance of overseas markets to U.S. cotton growers and served in several leadership capacities to cultivate foreign markets for growers across the U.S. Cotton Belt.

In accepting the award, Beverly Carter said, “Billy loved the land, and loved everything and everybody associated with growing cotton.

“He would be proud today to see the industry he loved so dearly in such good hands, as is evidenced by the leadership of this organization.

“Billy would be humbled and he would be very proud to receive this award,” she said.

rroberson@farmpress.com