During 1976 at age 34, Loretta Lyons was suddenly widowed when Hade Lyons, the teacher and farmer she married, suffered a fatal heart attack on the first day of spring.

Facing such a life-changing event, she could have leased out or sold her small dairy farm as has been the norm for many young widows of deceased farmers. Instead, Lyons gave up her own teaching career and decided to continue operating the farm near Tompkinsville, Ky.

Over the years, she increased the size of the milking herd, built silos and manure-holding facilities, added grain production enterprises and purchased additional farmland. She also oversaw a major transition of the dairy farm into one that now emphasizes the raising of dairy heifers. The farm now includes a total of 1,140 acres with 695 acres of owned land and another 445 acres of rented land.

As a result of her determination to carry on the farm, Lyons has been selected as the 2008 Kentucky winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Lyons now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 14 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga. Lyons is the first woman to be named as a state winner of the annual award program that began in 1990.

Her Hade’s Triple “K” Dairy Farm is named after her late husband and his father who was also named Hade. The Triple “K” stands for her three children whose first names all begin with the letter K. Her children, sons Kerry and Kevin and daughter Kela, all contributed to Loretta’s effort to carry on the farm. The sons looked after the crops and cattle while Kela fixed family meals and maintained the household. The sons also owned a fertilizer business for a time before Kevin took a job as a county Extension agent in Monroe County, Ky. Kerry continues to help his mother manage the farm and Kela became a medical doctor. Her daughter lives about an hour’s drive away in the town of Bowling Green, and both sons live within a five-minute drive from the farm.

“My children are all married and I have six wonderful grandchildren,” she says. “My oldest grandchild is also named Hade.”

“Our farm is organized as a family corporation, and my sons have their own individually owned farms that we lease,” she adds. Her crop yields are notable, 2.5 tons of baled wheat silage per acre from 300 acres, 19 tons of corn silage per acre from 130 acres, 152 bushels of corn grain per acre from 300 acres and 2.5 tons of hay per acre from 200 acres.

She raises 800 head of dairy replacement heifers each year and produces timber on 185 acres on one of her farms. “The contract dairy heifer program consists of purchasing weaned Holstein calves from a large dairy in Indiana,” says Lyons. “We get 100 to 120 heifers every two to three months. We raise them until they are bred with their first calves, and then sell them back to the same dairy farm in Indiana.” The heifers arrive at the farm weighing an average of 200 pounds. Then, after breeding 20 months later, they weigh about 1,150 pounds each when they are sold back to the original owners to be used as replacements in the Indiana milking herd. “The transaction prices are pre-set by the contract so these bred heifers are already marketed before the calves are even unloaded on our farm,” says Lyons.

The heifers are bred using artificial insemination and semen furnished by the Indiana dairy. Artificial insemination is another skill Lyons learned. “I learned how to do it when we were milking our own cows. I was basically self-taught,” she recalls. “Later, after we started the dairy heifer business, I practiced it again and my success rate was just as high as those who did it full time. Now, one of my nephews handles the breeding work for me.”

Her own dairy farm was milking about 30 to 40 cows when Hade died. She increased the number of milk cows to about 130 to 140 before she sold them in 1999 when she began raising the contract dairy heifers. When she was milking cows in 1994, she built a 252-foot-long freestall barn that is still used in feeding the dairy heifers. “We can feed 350 head of cattle per day in our freestall barn,” she says. “We also have facilities in place that will allow us to increase the number of contract heifers to 1,100 head by 2010,” she adds.

Other improvements include a series of lagoons for managing animal waste. Water from the third lagoon also flushes the floor of the freestall barn. “That facility works as well for the dairy heifers as it did for the milk cows,” she adds. In addition, she has built holding ponds to reduce erosion in her waterways.

She became interested in farming as a child when she helped her father raise tobacco. Her farm also grew burley tobacco until 2007. “The grain enterprise is our most recent addition,” she explains. “We had the opportunity to lease 300 acres of productive farmland near the Cumberland River. The Lord blessed us with a good yield in spite of drought, and the corn crop was marketed last December at a price of $4 per bushel.”

As her farm expanded, she found that keeping accurate records was a challenge. “In 1995, our farm began using the University of Kentucky’s Farm Analysis recordkeeping

service,” she recalls. “This has been a wonderful tool and has helped me make sound financial decisions.”

Lyons has been active in a number of organizations. She supports local libraries and Extension home economics. She was appointed to the local school board, served as president of the Kentucky Master Farm Homemakers Guild, was a charter member of the Kentucky Women in Agriculture organization and she was elected to serve on the local soil conservation district board. She also serves on the Kentucky Agriculture Heritage Center’s board. She is a Master Gardener and is active in her church. The Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce named Lyons its first South Central Kentucky Agriculture Hall of Fame Award recipient in 2007.

Before Hade died, he told Loretta that if anything happened to him, he didn’t want her to sell the farm unless she knew the children didn’t want to farm. “I guess I was stubborn,” she said. “I carried on the farm because my children were interested in farming, and I wanted them to grow up in the country. I just didn’t want to be defeated by something like Hade’s death that I had no control over. I wanted to show that something good could come from something bad.”

When she looks back on her career, Lyons says, “I was just cut out to be a farmer. I liked the work, seeing things grow and seeing the farm looking good. I hope that receiving this award will encourage other women farmers to apply for it as well.”

Jay McCants with Kentucky Farm Bureau is the state coordinator for the Farmer of the Year award in Kentucky. Lyons was nominated for the award by her son, Monroe County Extension Agent Kevin Lyons. “She has a compelling and inspiring story for this day and time,” he says. “After our dad passed away, she had a hard life, but she successfully raised three young children and overcame many obstacles.”

As the Kentucky state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year winner, Lyons 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, and a $500 gift certificate from Southern States.

She is also now eligible for the $14,000 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, a custom made Canvasback gun safe from Misty Morn Safe Co., and another $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative. Also, Williamson-Dickie will provide another jacket, a $500 gift certificate and $500 in cash to the overall winner.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for the 19th consecutive year.

Swisher has contributed some $724,000 in cash awards and other honors to Southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Kentucky farmers became eligible to compete for the award in 2006. Previous state winners from Kentucky include Sam Moore of Morgantown in 2006 and Scott Travis of Cox’s Creek in 2007.