In describing his introduction to agriculture in the 1960s, Steve Gamble puts it this way: “I started at the very bottom, following that old mule in the tobacco fields.”

“I was raised by my grandparents on their small farm,” says Gamble. “It included tobacco, corn and cotton. It was hard, but I will never forget the wonderful lessons the experience taught me.”

In 1967 after graduating from high school, things changed for Gamble. He married his high school sweetheart, Connie McFaddin, and her father asked Gamble to join him on his farm.

“It was through his teaching and guidance that I grew to love the art and science of farming,” says Gamble.

It was a decision he has never regretted as it launched Gamble’s successful agricultural career that has resulted in his selection as the 2006 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for South Carolina. He was selected for the honor in judging conducted by the Clemson University Extension Service and nominated by Russell Duncan.

Gamble now joins eight other Southeastern state winners as a finalist for the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for 2006, which will be announced during the Sunbelt Expo in Moultrie, Ga., on Tuesday, Oct. 17.

As the South Carolina state winner, Gamble 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, a commemorative fireproof home safe from Misty Morn Safe Co., and a $500 gift certificate from Southern States. He is also now eligible for the $14,000 that will go to the overall winner and the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for the 17th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed more than $700,000 in cash awards and other honors since the award was initiated in 1990.

In the 1970s, the farm became known as McFaddin & Gamble Farms as he formed a partnership with his father-in-law. And in l979, it became Gamble Farms when he bought out his father-in-law and became sole owner. It has transitioned into Steve Gamble & Sons Farms today.

The farm has swelled from 200 acres to 2,500 acres and includes 1,000 acres of corn that yield 125 bushels per acre and 1,200 acres of soybeans, yielding 35 bushels per acre. There are also 600 acres of wheat (50 bushels per acre), 200 acres of grain sorghum (70 bushels per acre), 250 acres of oats (100 bushels per acre) and 50 acres of rye (25 bushels per acre).

Another successful venture that has been added is a seed cleaning operation that cleans 50,000 bushels of seed.

“The seed conditioning plant is located on the farm and is basically run by the boys,” says Gamble. “They are really into today’s high-tech. This is a value-added operation that allows us to condition product for not only our farm, but for other operations.

“These products consist of oats, rye, peas, corn and wheat for planting and feeding livestock and wildlife,” he continues.

Gamble and his wife Connie have four children. Sons Steven, Jr., (34) and Jason (30) are partners in the operation; and son Martin (27) works with Farmers Telephone Co-Op. Daughter Allison is a rising sophomore at Clemson University.

Previous state winners from South Carolina include: Clifton Earl Thrailkill of Fort Lawn, 1990; Charles Snowden of Hemingway, 1991; Robert Connelly Sr. of Ulmer, 1992; Henry Elliott Sr. of Andrews, 1993; Ron Stephenson of Chester, 1994; Greg Hyman of Conway, 1995; Randy Lovett of Nichols, 1996; David Drew of Mullins, 1997; Jerry Edge of Conway, 1998; Blake McIntyre III of Marion, 1999; Ray Galloway of Darlington, 2000; W. R. Simpson of Manning, 2001; Gill Rogers of Hartsville, 2002; Harold Pitts of Newberry, 2003; Clifton Earl Thrailkill of Fort Lawn, 2004; and Chalmers Carr, III, of Ridge Spring, 2005.

South Carolina has had one overall winner when Ron Stephenson of Chester was selected as the Southeastern Farmer of the Year in 1994.