It’s farm bill time again, a time when organizations like the Environmental Working Group trot out their one-trick pony telling us that just 10 percent of America’s largest and richest farms are collecting three-fourths of federal farm subsidies, and that most of those cash payments are promoting harmful environmental practices.
It’s predictable and rather tiresome by now. But it makes the Sunbelt Ag Expo/Swisher International Southeastern Farmer of the Year Awards ceremony even more refreshing.
At a time when the American farmer is taking a beating in the popular press, this award represents a true celebration of his many contributions. The awards presentation, held each October during the Sunbelt Expo, honors top farmers from 10 Southeastern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The unenviable job for the panel of judges for this award is selecting one of the 10 state farmers as the overall winner — a recognition that is now seen as among the most prestigious in American agriculture.
One of the most interesting things about the state winners — especially to a journalist — is that each of them has a fascinating story to tell. There are the Horatio Alger stories — those who started with nothing and built their own versions of the American Dream. And there are many who grew up on small farms and stayed to make them bigger and better.
This year’s overall winner, William “Bill” Cameron Jr., didn’t disappoint when it came to a good story. The only son of a third-generation farmer, Cameron just didn’t see agriculture in his future. Instead, he saw football.
“I coached football because it was my intention to get away from the farm,” said Cameron in accepting the award. “I pulled a lot of tobacco in my life because my daddy didn’t believe in hiring outside labor,” he added in explaining his earlier diversion to farming.
But eventually, he came around. “I grew 5 or 6 acres of tobacco while I was still teaching, and I took that tobacco money and put it into equipment. After a few years, I made more money farming tobacco than I did teaching school. I wasn’t a math teacher, but it didn’t take me long to know I could make a little money. I gave up teaching, and that’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
After 11 years of coaching high school football, Cameron returned to Raeford, N.C., with a U-Haul truck, his wife and baby girl, and four cows. In 1976, he devoted his life to full-time farming, and it was obviously the right decision.
But Cameron didn’t leave the coaching profession without taking a few lessons with him. “I’ve always been sort of a visionary — you have to take what you have and make the best of it. I once had a football team, and they were all little bitty boys, but they had heart. We had to work, but we were successful, and we made something happen. That’s the way I farm — we take a little bit here and a little bit there, and it works. We’re not the biggest in the world, and we’re not the smallest, but we have pride and character. That’s something that was taught to me during my years growing up, and I still believe it today,” he said.
His original 82-acre operation has grown into 860 acres today. Cameron’s diversified operation includes row crops and a cattle operation along with swine. The family also operates Five Points pet resort on their farm.
There are 250 acres of corn, 425 acres of soybeans, 110 acres of wheat, 50 acres of oats, 120 acres of rye and 185 acres of hay. His other enterprises include 150 head of Santa Gertrudis cows and six bulls that he uses to raise seed stock. Feeder steers are sold to a farm in Iowa. He also has a 6,000-head breeder gilt grower operation in eight grower houses on contract with Premium Standard Farms.
“I’m honored and humbled to receive this award, especially after meeting the other nine other state winners and seeing their operations,” said Cameron. “I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work in an industry that I love and believe in.”
As the Southeastern Farmer of the Year, Willis will receive a $14,000 cash award from Swisher International. He will also receive the use of a tractor of his choice for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, gift certificates totaling $1,000 from Southern States, a $500 cash award, a $500 gift certificate and custom designed jacket from the Williamson-Dickie Company and a $3,600 custom-designed gun safe from Misty Morn Safe Company.