A sixth-generation farmer who uses strip-till near his farm in Sutherland, Va., to grow high-yielding crops was named as the Virginia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award for 2012.

Maxwell Watkins

Maxwell Watkins joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

Watkins farms around 2,800 acres, some 2,700 acres of rented land and 115 acres of owned land. Last year’s crops included soybeans on 1,490 acres, wheat on 587 acres, cotton on 426 acres, corn on 251 acres and flue-cured tobacco on 60 acres.

Per-acre yields were 39 bushels for soybeans, 132 bushels for corn, 86 bushels for wheat, 776 pounds for cotton and 3,250 pounds for tobacco.

He also raises fescue and ladino clover hay on 85 acres. In addition, he maintains a beef herd of about 35 cows. He normally sells calves at 500 pounds, but when corn prices are low, he harvests corn for silage and feeds it to keep calves a little longer.

Watkins is one of few farmers who plant strip-till tobacco, with wheat as one of his cover crops. Tobacco is the only crop that he irrigates. He has also used strip-till planting for cotton, soybeans and corn.

He sells tobacco to Philip Morris International. A 5-year contract allows him to market more than 300,000 pounds of tobacco per year. The contract also pays a premium price for tobacco free of maleic hydrazide pesticide residues.

He decided to forgo cotton this year in favor of corn and soybeans because these crops offered better prices. He is able to get in and out of cotton because he relies on custom cotton harvesters. He sold his cotton picker and module builder in 2004.

He has storage capacity for 65,000 bushels of grain and often stores corn until January when prices tend to peak. Grain storage speeds up the timely harvest of crops such as wheat. “We’re can harvest wheat at 16.5 percent moisture and then dry and store it,” he says.

Watkins also owns and operates non-farming sideline businesses. In one, he contracts with the Virginia Department of Transportation to use his farm equipment in removing snow from local roads. “We mount snow plows on the front of our tractors,” he says.

In 2006, he and his family opened Watkins Outdoor Products in Sutherland on the outskirts of the city of Petersburg, Va. This retail dealership sells farm and lawn equipment. “This business supports a real need in our area,” he says. The business serves an urbanizing area where farmland has been converted to small farms, subdivisions and homes on relatively large tracts.

The business sells the LS, Mahindra and McCormick brands of small tractors, along with Husqvarna, Ferris, Hustler and other brands of lawn and garden equipment.

“We also run a custom fertilizer and lime spreading business owned and managed by my son Cody,” he adds.

His wife Susan grew up in a family that worked in retail sales. She manages Watkins Outdoor Products, Inc., and also helps out on the farm. “We are blessed to have good people associated with our farm and store,” says Watkins.

“Susan was one of the best operators I ever had,” he adds. “She did strip-till planting and she always planted in straight rows.”