MOULTRIE --The 2001 Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year is truly an American success story.

More than 1,000 people saw Willard Jack of Belzoni, Miss., win Monday over seven other state winners -- all pretty stiff competition -- and receive the coveted crystal eagle trophy at an honorary luncheon held opening day at the Sunbelt Agricultural Expo. Official crowd estimates were not made available for security reasons, Expo Director Chip Blalock said, but this year's show attracted a record 1,185 exhibitors.

A native of Ontario, Canada, Jack and his family made a risky move to the Mississippi Delta more 22 years ago to build his own farm. He credits his wife and children for his success.

Panel judge Rogers Reynolds, a former farm credit worker and a U.S. Department of Agriculture representative, was impressed with Jack's triumph over adversity. Reynolds said Jack went broke during the drought years of the early 1980s but more than recovered by diversifying. His wife, Laura Lee, runs a trucking business that occupies 409 of their acres. She and the children also work the fields.

Jack is now one of the nation's leading soybean producers with 720 acres dedicated to the crop. The rest of his farming enterprise is divided into 810 acres of cotton, 910 of corn and 225 of rice.

"I've just been very fortunate to live in the U.S., to be able to raise my children in America," he said. "At this time I don't know if everybody understands really how good that is. I don't know if everybody knows how fortunate I am to be standing in front of you today representing every farmer in the U.S."

Reynolds said agriculture advocacy often gets the judges' attention, and Jack has local, state and national affiliations and is on a "first name basis" with a lot of legislators in Washington. He is particularly fervent about soybeans.

"One of the keys is how much they put back into their industry, into their community, into their families," Reynolds said.

Jack is vigilant about the conservation of soil and water. He also employs the latest technologies, a global positioning system yield monitor and mapping system, on his combine.

"The future of all agriculture is research and technology. ... The big thing I go to Washington and lobby for is more research ... That benefits everybody -- to continue to grow more, healthier, better food. Everybody benefits. That's not just a farmer's benefit," he said.

"I think it's going to make us look back to what is important to us -- what our priorities are. Are we a 'me' or do we need to be a 'we' society. What do we as businesses need to do to give back to our community ... It's going to affect us. We have to continue to have to grow quality food -- maybe be more vigilant on who's where and what's where."

When crop dusters were grounded recently due to the September U.S. attacks, he said, farmers really began to appreciate just how dependent they were on the ag aviation industry. The way farmers grow their crops may change as a result.

"I think the people want to see more safe pesticides," Jack said. "I think we're going to see more bioengineering -- to engineer certain things in the plant that are relatively safe. And there's been a real hue and cry about the biotech industry -- was it good or bad, and I think we're going to see more good come from it. ... Stuff that's engineered into a plant can't be altered or used or otherwise (made) harmful. Those things are only going to make our society better. Those are the things that our going to help us and everybody else."

Beyond its distinction, the title of Farmer of the Year comes with awards, including a $12,500 check from Swisher International on behalf of its Lancaster Premium Chewing Tobacco brand, a year's use of a Massey Ferguson farm tractor from AGCO, Inc., a customized gun safe from Misty Morn Safes, a $1,000 gift certificate from Southern State Cooperatives, Inc. and a unopened gift from the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce.

The Willie B. Withers Sunbelt Expo Luncheon

was sponsored by Swisher International, the Sunbelt Expo, Southern States Cooperatives, Inc., ALLTEL and the Moultrie-Colquitt County Chamber of Commerce. Maule Aircraft donated the use of one of its hangars for the event.

To contact reporter Lori Glenn, please call 985-4545 ext. 224

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