Major changes are in store for the 2006 Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award program.

Officials of Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., have announced that Swisher Sweets, one of the nation’s top-selling cigar brands, will replace Lancaster and join the Sunbelt Expo as the primary sponsors of the nation’s most prestigious award in agriculture.

“Our main objective remains the same — to recognize and honor excellence in agriculture,” says J. Thomas Ryan, president of Swisher International, in making the announcement. “We know the award will continue to grow as the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award.

“The program has had enormous success under the Lancaster banner and our goals for the future will remain the same under the flagship product of Swisher International, “adds Ryan. “We felt it only fitting to have Swisher’s number one product associated with the No. 1 award in agriculture.”

In October 2005, it was announced Kentucky will become the ninth state to participate in the program, joining the eight original states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. It marks the first time a state has been added in the 16-year history of the award.

“Both of the changes recently announced are signs of the growth of the program,” says Chip Blalock, executive director for the Sunbelt Expo. “Kentucky is certainly an outstanding addition to the participating states and there are no questions about Swisher Sweets role as a leader in the cigar industry. We are extremely excited about the future of the program and its growth,” he adds.

The Southeastern Farmer of the Year program was launched in 1990 by Swisher International and the Sunbelt Expo as an avenue to honor “excellence in agriculture” by farmers and farming families in the Southeast.

The program has grown during its 16-year history and today is recognized as the No. 1 agricultural award in the Southeast and the nation. Today, each state winner receives a $2,500 cash award plus an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International. The overall winner, announced in October at the Expo, also receives a $14,000 cash award from Swisher.

State winners and the Southeastern Farmer of the Year also receive additional prizes and awards from the Williamson-Dickie Company; Massey Ferguson North America; Misty Morn Safe Company and Southern States Cooperative.

Virginia’s Nelson Gardner was the initial winner in 1990 followed by Ernie Nunez of Florida (1991); Kenneth Hood of Mississippi (1992); Leroy Baldwin of Florida (1993); Ron Stephenson of South Carolina (1994); Ed Hester of Mississippi (1995); Raymond Jones of Alabama (1996); Rex Clonts of Florida (1997); Jimmy Tosh of Tennessee (1998); Doug Holmberg of Florida (1999); James Lee Adams of Georgia (2000); Willard Jack of Mississippi (2001); Armond Morris of Georgia (2002); Charles Parkerson of Virginia (2003); Eddie Johnson of North Carolina (2004); and Louis “Red” Larson of Florida (2005).

“The program will continue to provide a forum to tell what is good about today’s agriculture industry,” adds Ryan, “and to make the public more aware of the needs as well as accomplishments by the giants in the industry.”