MOULTRIE — If Gary Paulk is known as the “Muscadine Man” around Wray, Ga., it’s easy to understand why. After all, he is the largest muscadine grape grower in the Southeast and very possibly the biggest in the United States.

“We do everything in the muscadine grape business from planting, growing and processing,” said Paulk. “Plus, we sell fresh muscadines to supermarket chains and have grown into bottling muscadine juices.”

All Paulk’s eggs, however, aren’t in one basket as he manages a versatile operation and has been selected as the 2006 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for Georgia. He was chosen for the honor in judging conducted by the University of Georgia Extension Service and was nominated by Phillip Edwards.

Paulk is now a finalist for the Swisher Sweet/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for 2006, which will be announced during the Sunbelt Expo in Moultrie on Tuesday, Oct. 17. Other state winners are:

• Glenn Forrester of Columbia, Ala., who farms 4,150 acres of peanuts, cotton, oats and sod grass.

• Damon Deas of Jennings, Fla., who farms 2,650 acres of tobacco, field corn, hay, peas and peanuts. This is the second time Deas has been named Florida’s Farmer of the Year.

• Sam Moore of Morgantown, Ky., who farms more than 4,200 acres of corn, soybeans, silage and mixed hay and raises Angus cows, heifers and bulls. This is the first year Kentucky has participated in the Southeastern Farmer of the Year contest.

• Brooks Aycock III of Belzoni, Miss., who farms 2,000 acres of cotton plus 600 acres of corn, soybeans and timber.

• Tommy Porter of Concord, N.C., who raises swine, poultry and beef cattle on 650 acres.

• Steve Gamble of Sardinia, S.C., who farms 2,500 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum, oats and rye. His operation includes pickles and a seed-cleaning operation.

• Bob Willis of Hillsboro, Tenn., who farms 4,500 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa hay, grass clippings and wheat hay. He also raises 850 head of Holstein heifers and 130 head of beef cows.

• Paul House of Nokesville, Va., who farms 3,188 acres. The backbone is a dairy operation with 280 cows, 250 heifers and 70 steers, but he also grows turf grass, corn, wheat and hay.

Each state winner will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a jacket and a $200 gift certificate from the Williamson-Dickie Company, a commemorative fireproof home safe from Misty Morn Safe Co., and a $500 gift certificate from Southern States. State winners are also now eligible for the $14,000 that will go to the overall winner and the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for the 17th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed more than $700,000 in cash awards and other honors since the award was initiated in 1990.

Paulk, the son of a fourth generation farmer, grew up working in production agriculture. Row crops were the backbone of the operation in the early ’70s and following his graduation from University of Florida, he and his wife, Ann, moved home to the farm.

“I managed my father’s hog operation during the day,” said Paulk. “We had a farrow to finish operation with 300 sows. The average delivery was 100 plus pigs per week to local markets.”

But the itch to have his own operation began and he rented cropland and equipment for use at night. Peanuts and corn were his first crops, but soon began to transition into muscadine grape production as he continued to rent and purchase acreage.

From a 100-acre start, today’s farm includes more than 1,368 acres. There’s 192 acres of irrigated muscadine grapes with a 5,000-pound-per-acre yield. Cotton is still part of the operation and covers 318 irrigated acres, yielding 800 pounds per acre. Also included are 160 acres of peanuts (3,500 pounds per acre), 80 acres of pecans, 350 acres of timber and eight acres of blueberries.

The muscadine operation was expanded with the formation of Muscadine Products Corporation and today produces 30,000 gallons of bulk muscadine juice, 5,000 cases of bottled juice and 2,200 cases of muscadine seed and skin nutraceuticals.

“The majority of the grape crop is a farm-to-fresh market enterprise,” said Paulk. “The network includes supermarkets, wholesale markets, independent grocers and farmers markets.”

The peanuts are marketed by a local grain dealer while the cotton is purchased by a local gin. Pecans go to a local buyer and the blueberries will be sold to local buyers.

Paulk’s wife, Ann, in addition to being a kindergarden teacher, also keeps books for the farm. They have four children — son Chris who works for the muscadine corporation; son Eric, who is a medical resident in Greenville, N.C.; daughter Amy, who attends Valdosta State; and daughter Anna is a junior in high school.

Previous Georgia state winners include: Timothy McMillan of Enigma, 1990; Bud Butcher of Senoia, 1991; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 1992; John Morgan of Mystic, 1993; Alan Verner of Rutledge, 1994; Donnie Smith of Willachoochee, 1995; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 1996; Thomas Coleman Jr. of Hartsville, 1997; Glenn Heard of Bainbridge, 1998; Bob McLendon of Leary, 1999; James Lee Adams of Camilla, 2000; Daniel Johnson of Alma, 2001; Armond Morris of Ocilla, 2002; Jim Donaldson of Metter, 2003; Joseph Boddiford Jr. of Sylvania, 2004; and Jimmy Webb of Leary, 2005.

James Lee Adams of Camilla was selected as the Southeastern Farmer of the Year in 2000 and Armond Morris of Ocilla gave Georgia its second overall winner in 2002.

Paulk’s farm, along with the other eight state winners, will be visited by a distinguished panel of judges during the week of Aug. 7-11. The judges for this year include Eric Raby, vice president of marketing, Massey Ferguson North America; Rogers Reynolds, retired executive with Farm Credit; and Dr. Jim Butler, retired agricultural engineer and research leader.

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