A sixth generation farmer, Maxwell Watkins of Sutherland, Va., raises high yielding crops in fields with a long history tracing back to land grants from the King of England.

As a result of his success as a diversified crop farmer, Watkins has been selected as the Virginia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Watkins 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.

Watkins farms around 2,800 acres, some 2,700 acres of rented land and 115 acres of owned land.

Last year’s crops included soybeans on 1,490 acres, wheat on 587 acres, cotton on 426 acres, corn on 251 acres and flue-cured tobacco on 60 acres.

Per acre yields were 39 bushels for soybeans, 132 bushels for corn, 86 bushels for wheat, 776 pounds for cotton and 3,250 pounds for tobacco.

He also raises fescue and ladino clover hay on 85 acres.

In addition, he maintains a beef herd of about 35 cows. He normally sells calves at 500 pounds, but when corn prices are low, he harvests corn for silage and feeds it to keep calves a little longer.

Watkins is one of few farmers who plant strip-till tobacco, with wheat as one of his cover crops. Tobacco is the only crop he irrigates. He has also used strip-till planting for cotton, soybeans and corn.

He sells tobacco to Philip Morris International. A five-year contract allows him to market more than 300,000 pounds of tobacco per year. The contract also pays a premium price for tobacco free of maleic hydrazide pesticide residues.

For his tobacco crops, Watkins relies on guest workers from Mexico who come to his farm year after year to work under the Federal H-2A labor program.

In past years, Watkins grew 80 acres of pumpkins. He also raised sheep and had a flock of about 200 ewes. During the 1990s, he gave up the pumpkin and sheep to concentrate on his then-new cotton farming enterprise.

He decided to forgo cotton this year in favor of corn and soybeans because these crops offered better prices.

Custom cotton harvesters

He is able to get in and out of cotton because he relies on custom cotton harvesters. He sold his cotton picker and module builder in 2004.

He has storage capacity for 65,000 bushels of grain and often stores corn until January when prices tend to peak. Grain storage speeds up the timely harvest of crops such as wheat. “We can harvest wheat at 16.5 percent moisture and then dry and store it,” he says. 

Urbanization and the rising prices for land in the area have prevented Watkins from being able to buy more land for farming.

Watkins also owns and operates non-farming sideline businesses. In one, he contracts with the Virginia Department of Transportation to use his farm equipment in removing snow from local roads. “We mount snow plows on the front of our tractors,” he says.

In 2006, he and his family opened Watkins Outdoor Products in Sutherland on the outskirts of the city of Petersburg, Va. This retail dealership sells farm and lawn equipment.

“This business supports a real need in our area,” he says. The business serves an urbanizing area where farmland has been converted to small farms, subdivisions and homes on relatively large tracts. The business sells the LS, Mahindra and McCormick brands of small tractors, along with Husqvarna, Ferris, Hustler and other brands of lawn and garden equipment.

 “We also run a custom fertilizer and lime spreading business owned and managed by my son Cody,” he adds.

A farmer for 35 years, Watkins grew his first crops at age 15. From an early age, he knew he wanted to farm. He still loves the rewards and challenges of farming.

 “My first memories of farm chores include riding mules in tobacco fields,” he recalls.

“I spent many days as a young boy learning the ins and outs of farming from my grandfather and my dad. We had a hog operation while I was in high school.”

He earned the FFA State Farmer Degree in 1979. After high school, he farmed with his father. He remembers growing pumpkins, the first crop he grew on his own. After his father died in 1994, he assumed full responsibility for the farm and started growing tobacco and cotton.

Watkins also takes time to serve in leadership positions for local agricultural and community organizations. He serves on the County Committee for the USDA Farm Service Agency in Dinwiddie County.

He served as a director on the board for the Appomattox River Soil & Water Conservation District and has received awards from the District for his work in education, conservation and as a director.

He is on the board of the Dinwiddie County Industrial Development Authority. He has been a volunteer Extension leader. He served on the board of the local Southern States Cooperative and was on an advisory board of young farmers for Southern States.

He has been nominated by local Extension agents for cotton farming awards. He has also been a member of the Virginia Sheep Producers Association.

His wife Susan grew up in a family that worked in retail sales. She manages Watkins Outdoor Products, Inc., and also helps out on the farm. “We are blessed to have good people associated with our farm and store,” says Watkins. 

 “Susan was one of the best operators I ever had,” he adds. “She did strip-till planting and she always planted in straight rows.”

FSA advisor

Susan has also served as an advisor for the local Farm Service Agency office, and she represented Dinwiddie County as a member of the South Centré Corridors Resource Conservation and Development Council. In addition, she has been a coach for youth baseball and t-ball teams.

Maxwell and Susan are the parents of two adult sons. Their older son Nick is a fire fighter and a paramedic in Spotsylvania County and lives in Richmond, Va. Nick helps the farm with computer applications.

Their younger son Cody works on the farm. In addition to running the family’s custom fertilizer and lime spreading business, Cody grows pumpkins and is a contract tobacco grower for Philip Morris International.

Cathy Sutphin, associate director of 4-H for the Virginia Tech University Cooperative Extension Service, is the state coordinator of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Michael Parrish, Extension agent in Dinwiddie County, Va., nominated Watkins for the award. Parrish admires the flexibility Watkins shows in being able to get in and out of enterprises such as sheep, pumpkins and cotton when markets dictate.

“Maxwell has been a leader in our area and a good example for other farmers to follow,” says Parrish. “He’s always willing to help out his neighbors.”

As the Virginia state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Watkins 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 Virginia include: Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater, 1990; Russell Inskeep of Culpepper, 1991; Harry Bennett of Covington, 1992; Hilton Hudson of Alton, 1993; Buck McCann of Carson, 1994; George M. Ashman, Jr. of Amelia, 1995; Bill Blalock of Baskerville, 1996; G. H. Peery III of Ceres, 1997; James Bennett of Red House, 1998; Ernest Copenhaver of Meadowview, 1999; John Davis of Port Royal, 2000; James Huffard III of Crockett, 2001; J. Hudson Reese of Scottsburg, 2002; Charles Parkerson of Suffolk, 2003; Lance Everett of Stony Creek, 2004; Monk Sanford of Orange, 2005; Paul House of Nokesville, 2006; Steve Berryman of Surry, 2007; Tim Sutphin of Dublin, 2008; Billy Bain of Dinwiddie, 2009; Wallick Harding of Jetersville, 2010; and Donald Horsley of Virginia Beach, 2011.

Virginia has had two overall winners with Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater in 1990 and Charles Parkerson of Suffolk in 2003.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Watkins 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.