A native of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, John Scott Long answered a call to manage a cucumber farm in South Florida.

He later bought this land near Palm City, Fla., to raise vegetables. His Agri-Gators farming operation has since become a successful producer of sweet corn and potatoes consumed throughout the eastern U.S.

As a result of his success as a vegetable grower, Long has been selected as the Florida state winner of the 2013 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Long now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

His uncle, Billy Long of Apopka, was Florida Farmer of the Year in 1994. A full-time farmer for 25 years, John Scott Long first grew cucumbers for pickles during the 1990s. By 2005, he stopped growing cucumbers to focus on potatoes and sweet corn.

His farm now encompasses 2,858 acres, 938 acres of rented land and 1,920 acres of owned land. His major crops include 900 acres of potatoes yielding 250 to 300 hundredweight per acre and 500 to 600 acres of sweet corn yielding 400 to 450 crates per acre.

He increased potato acreage from 40 acres in 2000 to 900 acres in 2012. During this expansion, he built a shop and pole barns to house his equipment. In 2012, he built a 7,500-square foot cold room along with a 12,500-square foot packing facility.

“These buildings gave us extra space for cooling and grading to keep our operation growing,” he explains. A new hydrocooler to be built this fall will allow him to sell sweet corn directly and save on costs for hauling to Belle Glade, Fla., for hydrocooling.

He markets potatoes through Southeast Farms Inc., of Hastings, Fla. This company has been his exclusive potato sales agent for 13 years.

“Our relationship is built on trust and integrity,” says Long. Until he started using this firm, he was disappointed in the lack of control over marketing decisions when he sold his crops.

Long goes to great lengths to limit waste of natural resources. Global positioning ensures sub-inch accuracy in digging rows for his crops. Using tools as traditional as a dirt pan and as advanced as laser guidance, he’s able to level his land for irrigation.

Water control structures

When some crops emerged unevenly, he added a traveling gun for overhead watering. He installed water control structures to manage irrigation and proper drainage.

 “Our goals are to increase productivity on weaker soils and maximize productivity on our best land,” he adds.

He brought in an expert to advise him on implementing fertilization by soil type. He employs a full time scout to identify diseases and insect pests.

“This allows us to fine tune our spraying to save money and become better stewards of the land,” says Long. He also hired a full-time food safety employee who has helped the farm pass food safety audits.

He formed Long Gator, LLC, to hold his real estate investments. He also leases out 650 pasture acres to a cow-calf operation.

 “We plant cover crops of sorghum and sunn hemp. Some of it is baled and sold to dairies and replacement heifer farming operations,” he says. Sunn hemp is a summer annual legume that produces nitrogen while building soil organic matter. Sunn hemp also grows well in low fertility sandy soils.

Long recently planted six acres of alfalfa, and has been pleased with his first three cuttings and alfalfa’s market potential.

In the fall of 2012, he formed Plantation Creek LLC to rent 750 acres five miles from his main farm. “Plantation Creek is designed to bring in as a partner a key employee with 25 years of experience in growing potatoes,” Long explains. This land includes 400 previously farmed acres and 350 acres in unproductive citrus trees that will be cleared and put into crops.

During the past eight years, he has tripled his potato acreage and he now has 25 full time employees. In 2004, hurricanes destroyed his packinghouse. He rebuilt and was back packing potatoes in March of 2005.

Third generation farmer

“I’m a third generation farmer,” he says. “I remember telling my father all I wanted for my sixth birthday was to drive a tractor. He granted my wish and I quickly became one of his employees.” At age seven, he started milking cows owned by his grandmother. He did this until he was 17.

He is a former board member of the Martin County Agricultural Landowners, Inc. He is active in Martin County Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. He is an active member of First United Methodist Church of Stuart. He has served consecutive terms and as chairman and vice chairman for the local USDA Farm Service Agency committee. He has taken part in mission trips to Cuba and to Mozambique. He also took an agricultural consulting trip to Nicaragua.

Long is a strong supporter of Christians Reaching Out to Society (C.R.O.S.) Ministries to benefit food banks.  He typically donates more than 100,000 pounds of food each year for these charitable projects.

John Scott and and his wife Janet have four children, Stephanie, Rebekah, Anna and James. Janet also works on the farm. Through First United Methodist Church of Stuart, she has supervised youth mission trips and accompanied her husband on the Mozambique mission trip. She is also active in Women of Faith.

His mother, Julia Long, comes down from her home in Virginia during the potato season to handle shipping. “It has been a blessing to have my mother here,” he says. “This has given my children the chance to get to know their grandmother.”

His farm manager, Joe Black, is a friend and former schoolmate. “We went to school together in the first through the twelfth grades,” says Long.

“I take very little credit for anything I’ve managed to achieve in life,” says Long. “A great team of employees — past and present — helped us get here. But truly, the Lord deserves the credit. He has blessed me and my family abundantly, and He gets the praise.”

Joshua Craft, director of the Field Services Division at Florida Farm Bureau, is the state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year awards. Long was nominated for the award by Tom Hill, assistant director of field services with Florida Farm Bureau.

“John has been on the Martin County Farm Bureau board for more than 10 years,” says Hill. “His fellow board members recommended him for this award for all he has done for the farming industry and for his community.”

As the Florida state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Long 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, the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

Eligible for overall award

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award 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 and a Heritage gun safe from the Southern States cooperative, the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 24th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $924,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from Florida include: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1990; Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Wayne Wiggins of Plant City, 1992; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Billy Long of Apopka, 1994; Richard Barber of Ocala, 1995; Al Bellotto of Lakeland, 1996; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; John Hoblick of DeLeon Springs, 1998; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2000; Gene Batson of Mount Dora, 2001; William Putnam of Alturas, 2002; Sonny Williamson of Okeechobee, 2003; Dale Sauls of Anthony, 2004; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2006; Alto “Bud” Adams of Ft. Pierce, 2007; Randy Strode of Longwood, 2008; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009;  John Hundley of North Palm Beach, 2010;  Ron St. John of Trenton, 2011; and Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012.

Florida has had seven overall winners: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, 2009; and Dale McClellan of Thonotosassa, 2012.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit Long’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 12-16.

The judges for this year include John McKissick, longtime University of Georgia Extension ag economist from Athens, Ga., farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., who was the overall winner in 2008, and John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years.