Gary Blake of North Wilkesboro, N.C., bought eroded land overgrown with kudzu in 1978 and transformed it into a modern diversified farm.

Four generations of his family live on the farm, and three generations of his family manage key components of the operation. They derive most of their income from raising broiler and pullet chickens.

They also raise beef cattle, timber, tobacco, soybeans, field corn, sweet corn and other vegetable crops.

As a result of his accomplishments as a chicken grower and as a diversified farmer, Blake has been selected as the North Carolina winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Blake now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Last year, he farmed 410 acres, including 100 acres of rented land and 310 acres of owned land. This year, the Blakes are adding 50 acres of rented land and 110 acres of purchased land, along with more chicken houses. By the end of this year, the Blakes will have 16 broiler houses and six pullet houses.

If all goes as planned, the Blakes will grow more than 2.4 million chickens for Tyson Foods next year. It takes seven to eight weeks to raise a flock of broilers on their farm. Pullets arrive on their farm at one day of age and are kept for 16 to 22 weeks.

A full-time farmer for 34 years, Blake’s crops last year included corn on 45 acres yielding 100 bushels per acre, soybeans on 60 acres yielding 40 bushels per acre, hay and pasture on 286 acres yielding five tons of forage per acre, burley tobacco on 10 acres yielding 1,200 pounds per acre and a wide variety of vegetables on eight acres. In his greenhouses, he raises tobacco plants for transplanting on about 150 acres.

Blake previously grew flue-cured tobacco on 50 to 60 acres, but switched to burley because curing flue-cured tobacco became more expensive. “We cure our burley by hanging it in a chicken house and letting it air dry,” says Blake.

He grows his tobacco on contract with R. J. Reynolds. He sells vegetables at farmers’ markets, and he relies on word-of-mouth advertising to help sell his hay, tobacco transplants and other crops.

“I first began farming at age 14 when I leased some land with my dad and grew six acres of flue-cured tobacco,” Blake recalls.

After high school, he worked off the farm at a Western Electric manufacturing plant in Greensboro, N.C., and met his wife Lorene there. After leaving Western Electric, he went into business for himself, owning and operating gasoline service stations. “These were full service stations,” he recalls.

Family operation

“One of them was open 24 hours per day, where I had 16 employees.” He saved enough to buy a 177-acre farm, but later sold it to help pay for the farm in Wilkes County where he now lives.

On his farm, Blake essentially acts as a chief executive officer, while other family members manage key components.

Gary and Lorene have two sons. Their older son Rodney works off the farm at Wilkes Telecommunications and as a Baptist preacher. Rodney has a son and daughter who occasionally help out on the farm.

Gary and Lorene’s younger son Chad has an agriculture degree from North Carolina State University and has worked on the farm since 1987. Chad helps Gary manage the pullets.

Chad’s wife Brenda handles the farm’s bookkeeping and manages the family’s vegetable operation. She grows sweet corn, tomatoes, beets, cucumbers, cantaloupes, watermelons, okra and green beans to sell at local farmers markets. When the greenhouses are not being used to grow tobacco for transplanting, she uses the greenhouses to raise vegetables.

Chad and Brenda have four sons. Their older sons, Heath and Tyler, are married and both work on the farm. They are primarily responsible for the broilers. Their two younger sons, Seth and Luke, also help out on the farm when they are not being home-schooled by Brenda.

Heath repairs and maintains diesel equipment for the family’s Blake Systems sideline business. “This generates income for the family when we don’t have crops in the field,” says Gary. Tyler and Chad also take on small construction jobs such as building porches. “My family built my house and Chad and Brenda’s home,” adds Gary. “Providing our own labor meant we could build our homes at cost, with no mortgages, so we could continue to invest in the farming operation.”

Another small sideline business involves selling and spreading chicken litter. Gary sells some litter for about $15 per ton. But for high volume buyers, he will sell the litter and shavings from an entire chicken house for $1,500.

“The chickens in both our pullet houses and our broiler houses produce dry litter,” Gary explains. “When we apply litter on our own land, we follow a comprehensive nutrient management plan that limits the amount of litter we can apply based on its phosphorus content.”

Gary also finds time to give back to his community. He sits on the board that nominates farmers for the Hall of Fame in the Wilkes Heritage Museum. He is on the Wilkes County Farm Bureau board and on the local Agricultural District board. He also chairs the board for a community center building. He has been a voting precinct chairman, a candidate for the county commission and is active in the Masons.

He served in the National Guard from 1956 until 1964. He is a member of the North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association. His farm has also been recognized on the state and national levels for its soil and water conservation and environmental stewardship.

Gary and Lorene are members of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church. Lorene has also served as secretary/treasurer of Southeast Wilkes Community Building. She has also been a hospital volunteer and a voting delegate at North Carolina Farm Bureau state conventions. 

Ken Powell with North Carolina Farm Bureau is the state coordinator of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Gary was nominated for the award by his daughter-in-law Brenda.

Farm got a make-over

“I appreciate many things about Gary,” says Brenda. “He keeps us going and has motivated all of us to make this a great farm. He’s just a good role model for the rest of us to follow. I admire how he took this rundown, eroded farm that was overgrown with kudzu, and made it into the beautiful place it is now.”

“You should have seen this place when I purchased it,” adds Gary. Lorene says, “We also picked up plenty of rocks on this land.”

As the North Carolina state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Blake will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed, or a second $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of our newest sponsor, Dow Agrosciences.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 23rd consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $884,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from North Carolina include John Vollmer of Bunn, 1990; Kenneth Jones of Pink Hill, 1991; John Howard, Jr. of Deep Run, 1992; Carlyle Ferguson of Waynesville, 1993; Dick Tunnell of Swan Quarter, 1994; Allan Lee Baucom of Monroe, 1995; Scott Whitford of Grantsboro, 1996; Williams Covington, Sr. of Mebane, 1997; Phil McLain of Statesville, 1998; Earl Hendrix of Raeford, 1999; Reid Gray of Statesville, 2000; Rusty Cox of Monroe, 2001; Craven Register of Clinton, 2002; Frank Howey, Jr. of Monroe, 2003; Eddie Johnson of Elkin, 2004; Danny McConnell of Hendersonville, 2005; Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2006; Bill Cameron of Raeford, 2007; V. Mac Baldwin of Yanceyville, 2008; Fred Pittillo of Hendersonville, 2009; Bo Stone of Rowland, 2010; and Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2011.

North Carolina has had three overall winners with Eddie Johnson of Elkin being selected as the Southeastern Farmer of the Year in 2004, Bill Cameron of Raeford in 2007 and Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord in 2011.                                                                                                                                          

A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Blake farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 5-10.

The judges for this year include Charles Snipes, a retired Mississippi Extension weed scientist who is president and research scientist with Stoneville R&D, Inc., from Greenville, Miss.; John McKissick, a longtime University of Georgia Extension ag economist from Athens, Ga.; and farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., who was selected as the overall winner in 2008.