BATON ROUGE, La. -- Robert Thevis calls himself a rice farmer, but the 2003 Louisiana Farmer of the Year grows much more than rice. Thevis farms nearly 2,000 acres in Avoyelles Parish — raising soybeans, corn, milo and, when the weather allows, winter wheat. He finds the freedom afforded by farming alluring.

"You control your own destiny to a certain extent. You have other factors that play into it, but it's up to you to make it," Thevis said, adding, "You make the decisions yourself. Right or wrong, you live with them."

Thevis says he is conscious of the environment and uses no-tillage and minimum-tillage techniques to reduce erosion. He also provides wildlife habitat through participation in Operation Quackback — a program that is "trying to make the public aware of what farmers do to preserve wildlife habitat," particularly for ducks.

Thevis is originally from southwestern Louisiana and farmed in East Carroll Parish before settling outside of Simmesport, La. Although the largest portion of his acreage is in soybeans, he is true to his roots and considers himself a rice farmer first.

"I'm a rice farmer at heart. And rice, I guess, is my true love," he said. "It's just a challenge to get it growing, and it's a beautiful crop to watch grow. Rice has been good to us over the years."

Other finalists for this year's Farmer of the Year award were Joe Mitcham Jr. of Ruston, La., and Joseph Beatty of Heflin, La.

Mitcham's main crop is peaches, which he grows on nearly 100 acres in north Louisiana. He also raises plums, and beginning this year, he will be planting kiwi, pineapple guava, and fall raspberries.

To help market his products, Mitcham has opened a store that sells peach jams, jellies, desserts and even a peach salsa.

Beatty oversees approximately 850 acres of prime timber country in Webster and Bienville parishes. He is an active member of the Louisiana Forestry Association and is president of the Heflin Volunteer Fire Department.

In addition, Beatty is a proponent of best management practices (BMPs), and by implementing BMPs, Beatty reduces runoff into streams and improves the aesthetics of his timber operation.

The farmer of the year awards program is in its sixth year. Under the program, farmers are nominated by various commodity groups and their peers. Then their applications are judged by a panel of experts who select the finalists and eventually the winner.

As the winner, Thevis will receive $1,000, use of a Dodge truck for a year and 150 hours' use of a John Deere tractor, as well as other prizes. The other two finalists each receive $500.

The Farmer of the Year award was presented at the annual banquet at the Lod Cook Alumni Center on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. The statewide awards program and banquet are sponsored primarily by the Louisiana Agri-News Network, Louisiana Dodge dealers, Louisiana John Deere dealers, the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.

Craig Gautreaux writes for the LSU AgCenter. Contact him at 225–578–2263 or cgautreaux@agcenter.lsu.edu.