The 2009 Swisher Sweets Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year sees his role primarily as a protector of the land.

“Up until 2009, we had 1,000 people a day moving into Florida. We were losing 150,000 acres per year to concrete and asphalt, and my family’s lifestyle was changing,” says Cary Lightsey, a Lake Wales, Fla., cattle rancher.

“At that time, we had a family meeting and decided we were going to put 80 percent of our land in some type of conservation easement, and eventually, all of it will be in a conservation easement.”

The presentation of the 20th annual Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award was a highlight of this year’s Sunbelt Agricultural Expo, held in Moultrie, Ga. More than 80,000 visited the nearly 1,200 exhibitors during the three-day show.

“The Sunbelt Ag Expo brings in the latest technology that the marketplace has to offer,” says Chip Blalock, executive director of the Expo. “In down times is when you need to market the most. Hopefully, we’re on the downhill side of the recession, and this is a chance for farmers to come in and get a head’s up on what’s happening for 2010.”

Lightsey said it was a tremendous honor to receive the award. “I am humbled to be chosen, because I know that all of the other state winners have made outstanding contributions to the farming industry and to their community,” he said.

He was one of 10 state winners who were honored at this year’s Sunbelt Expo. The award honors excellence in agricultural production and management, and leadership in community and farm organizations, and it recognizes family contributions in producing safe and abundant supplies of food, fiber and shelter for U.S. consumers.

“Since I was old enough to walk, I wanted to be a cowboy. I wanted to ride a horse and I wanted to raise big, fat cattle, and I wanted to take care of the land and the wildlife and to protect it. And I wanted to do all of this with my family — that dream came true,” says Lightsey, who operates more than 36,000 acres of crop and pasture land on Brahma Island, just south of Orlando, Fla.

A sixth-generation rancher whose family came to central Florida in the 1850s, Lightsey typically pre-conditions 2,250 yearlings each year. He sells 1,080 head through the Internet and local livestock auctions and retains 780 heifers for replacements. He also retains ownership on 1,710 head per year fed out in Texas feed lots.

He operates a total of 36,200 acres, including 17,800 rented and 18,400 acres owned. Besides raising cattle, he grows 420 acres of irrigated citrus, 300 acres of bahiagrass sod, 450 acres of bahia for seed and 2,800 acres of forage.

“We want to save our heritage and our family tradition,” says Lightsey. “We’ve been on this land since the mid-1800s. We respect and love the land, and we’ve always felt like the way we treat the land is the way it’ll treat us later.”

The American farmer, says Lightsey, provides many services for U.S. citizens. “We provide clean water for the aquifers and we provide green space. We also provide an area that has clean air, and most importantly, we provide a home for wildlife species.

“Our forefathers expected my generation to respect the land. We are only borrowing this land from our children and our grandchildren for a short while. It’s our responsibility to take care of it,” he says.

Other state winners this year included David Wright of Plantersville, Ala.; Orelan Johnson of England, Ark.; Bill Brim of Tifton, Ga.; Doug Langley of Shelbyville, Ky.; Donald Gant of Merigold, Miss.; Fred Pittillo of Hendersonville, N.C.; Thomas DuRant of Gable, S.C.; Richard Atkinson of Belvidere, Tenn.; and Billy Bain of Dinwiddie, Va.

As the Southeastern Farmer of the Year, Lightsey received a $15,000 cash award from Swisher International. He also received the use of a tractor of his choice for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, gift certificates totaling $1,000 from Southern States, and a custom-made Canvasback gun safe from Misty Morn Safe Co. He also received a jacket, a $500 gift certificate, and $500 in cash from the Williamson-Dickie clothing company.

Blalock noted that since last year’s show, the Expo’s 600-acre research farm has been dedicated as the Darrell Williams Research Farm, in memory of the farm’s long-time director who died in February.

“We feel this is a fitting tribute to a man who gave his heart and soul to research projects that we conducted on our farm. We’ve raised more than $8,000 for the Darrell Williams Scholarship Fund. Darrell’s son Michael is now carrying on the tradition of excellence on the research farm,” says Blalock.

Featured in the research fields this year were various cotton and peanut harvesting demonstrations and new precision agriculture technologies.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com