Virginia Cooperative Extension has selected Maxwell Watkins of Sutherland, Va., as the Virginia Farmer of the Year — an award that recognizes individual contributions to the commonwealth’s agriculture industry.
Watkins, a sixth-generation farmer, was recognized at the Virginia Junior Livestock Expo in Harrisonburg on Oct. 13.
“We are pleased to honor Maxwell Watkins with this award,” said Robert Grisso, associate director of agriculture and natural resources for Virginia Cooperative Extension. “He is an example of the enterprising spirit demonstrated through hard work on the farm and developing a startup business. His marketing and land conservation measures are examples of how farm enterprises will remain sustainable for the next six generations. His desire to partner with his two sons is a true inspiration.”
Watkins, who operates Watkins Farm in partnership with his family, farms more than 2,800 acres — 2,700 acres rented and 115 acres owned. While soybeans, wheat, and flue-cured tobacco provide the bulk of his farm income, he also raises fescue and ladino clover for hay.
In past years, Watkins grew 80 acres of pumpkins. He also raised sheep and had a flock of about 200 ewes. During the 1990s, he stopped raising pumpkins and sheep to concentrate on his new cotton enterprise. He decided to forgo cotton this year in favor of corn and soybeans because they offered better prices. He is able to get in and out of cotton production because he relies on custom cotton harvesters.
“Maxwell has found success in diversifying his crops. He takes calculated risks, controls expenses, keeps his eyes on ever-changing market conditions, and lets nothing go to waste,” said Grisso.
When Watkins recognized that some of the land he farms was better suited for grazing, he bought a beef herd of about 35 cows. He normally sells calves at 500 pounds, but when corn prices plummet, he harvests the corn for silage and feeds it to the calves to keep them a little longer.
“Environmental and market conditions dictate what I grow at any given time,” Watkins said. “I will cut costs when I can, but I will not sacrifice yields and I don’t ever cut corners.”
Michael Parrish, Extension agent in Dinwiddie County, nominated Watkins for the award. Parrish admires the flexibility Watkins shows in being able to get in and out of enterprises such as sheep, pumpkins, and cotton when markets dictate. “Maxwell is a great role model for our younger farmers in Dinwiddie County. He has hosted field days, crop tours, and test plots on his farm during the past 17 years,” said Parrish. “He and his family make the day-to-day farm work look easy, when we know it’s not.”
Watkins also owns and operates nonfarming sideline businesses. He contracts with the Virginia Department of Transportation to remove snow using his farm equipment. And in 2006, he and his family opened Watkins Outdoor Products, a retail dealership that sells farm and lawn equipment. “This business supports a real need in our area,” he said. The business serves an urbanizing area where farmland has been converted to small farms, subdivisions, and homes on relatively large tracts.
A farmer for 35 years, Watkins grew his first crops at age 15. He knew he wanted to farm from an early age, and he still loves its rewards and challenges.
“My first memories of farm chores include riding mules in tobacco fields,” he recalled. “I spent many days as a young boy learning the ins and outs of farming from my grandfather and my dad. We had a hog operation while I was in high school.” Watkins earned the State FFA Degree in 1979. After high school, he farmed with his father. He remembers growing pumpkins, the first crop he grew on his own. After his father died in 1994, he assumed full responsibility for the farm and started growing tobacco and cotton.
Watkins finds time to assume leadership positions in local agricultural and community organizations. He serves on the committee for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency in Dinwiddie County. He also serves on the board of directors for the Appomattox River Soil and Water Conservation District where he has received awards for his work in education and conservation and as a director. He sits on the board of the Dinwiddie County Industrial Development Authority and has been a volunteer Extension leader. Previously, Watkins served on the board of the local Southern States Cooperative and was on the cooperative’s advisory board of young farmers.
As Virginia Farmer of the Year, Watkins received a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga., from Swisher International; a $500 gift certificate from Southern States Cooperative; and the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity on behalf of Dow AgroSciences. Each farmer and nominator also received a Columbia Cathedral Peak fleece vest, courtesy of Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply of Albany, Ga.
In accepting the award, Watkins joins the short list of farmers in the running for Southeastern Farmer of the Year.
Extension has nominated individuals for Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year since the award’s inception in 1990.
Previous state winners include: Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater, 1990; Russell Inskeep of Culpeper, 1991; Harry Bennett of Covington, 1992; Hilton Hudson of Alton, 1993; Buck McCann of Carson, 1994; George M. Ashman Jr. of Amelia, 1995; Bill Blalock of Baskerville, 1996; G.H. Peery III of Ceres, 1997; James Bennett of Red House, 1998; Ernest Copenhaver of Meadowview, 1999; John Davis of Port Royal, 2000; James Huffard III of Crockett, 2001; J. Hudson Reese of Scottsburg, 2002; Charles Parkerson of Suffolk, 2003; Lance Everett of Stony Creek, 2004; Monk Sanford of Orange, 2005; Paul House of Nokesville, 2006; Steve Berryman of Surry, 2007; Tim Sutphin of Dublin, 2008; Billy Bain of Dinwiddie, 2009; Wallick Harding of Jetersville, 2010; and Donald Horsley of Virginia Beach, 2011.