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Farmer of the Year: Coming Out On Top

While disking one fall day, James Cooley had been contemplating a means of marking his irrigation heads. Finally, an ingenious solution for row markers came to him: American flags.

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From there, the idea grew. Today, his 1,200-acre, Chesnee, SC farm and farmers’ market, Strawberry Hill USA, features 400 flags sprouting all over the property. James even adorns his large open-air produce sheds with them, replacing the stars and bars three times a year. Solving a practical problem with patriotic flair is typical of this innovative farmer’s flexibility.

Presentation remains important to him. So does innovative thinking.

Adapting to Change

James and family raise 850 acres of peach trees and 120 acres in strawberries. The rest includes acreage for cantaloupe, blackberries, pumpkins, pickle cucumbers and squash. He also grows a 10-acre corn maze and 100 acres of wheat and soybeans, used in rotation with the peach trees.

The farm was established in 1946 by James’ father and uncle. Yet, outdated equipment forced a decision in 1989: upgrade the operation’s packing shed or change direction. “We elected to go fresh market,” James says.

These days, Strawberry Hill USA is recognized as the largest strawberry producer in the state. “We don’t compare [to states such as Florida],” James says. “They can grow nice big strawberries for three and four months. We [have] a six-week, hopefully eight-week [growing] period. But it works.”

The Cooleys also made another change recently—growing fall strawberries in tunnel greenhouses. “These fall strawberries, we pick almost to Christmastime,” James says.

Farmer of the Year

“Whatever it takes to make it work, that’s what we’ve got to do,” he says of farming.

That adaptive attitude helped James win the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year for 2013. Among the prizes was use for a year of a Massey Ferguson® tractor.

It is not, however, his first Massey Ferguson. “We love Masseys,” says James. “We’ve got 17 of the old 135s,” used for bringing out peaches and light work. For parts, he calls on Nance Tractor and Implements in McConnells.

Adds Cooley, the vintage workhorse “’was Massey’s special tractor,’ Daddy always said. The 135 is a tractor that everybody can drive. It’s easy to maintain, regarding its parts and availability of them.”

As for his new MF8670, which Cooley calls the “Cadillac of tractors,” he plans to put it to work preparing peach and strawberry land. “The view is remarkable,” says Cooley. “It’s a smooth ride and the turning radius is remarkable. And, of course, it [has] unmatched power.”

Source: AGCO, Massey Ferguson