South's top farmer aids Clemson research efforts

By Tom Hallman

James CooleyIn agriculture, the headlines usually go to the big-dollar, big-acre row crops.

So when the South's largest farm show proclaimed a peach and berry farmer its 2013 Farmer of the Year, it's a fair to ask what James Cooley did right.

Pretty much everything, if you ask his county agent.

“His is truly a family farm,” said Andy Rollins, Clemson Extension agent in Spartanburg County who works with fruit and vegetable farmers across the Upstate. “James inherited military discipline from his father. His appreciation for people is what makes him successful.”

Working with his wife, daughters and employees – nearly 200 during the peak harvest season – Cooley farms more than 1,100 acres of peaches, strawberries and blackberries near Chesnee. Dubbed “Strawberry Hill U.S.A.,” Cooley calls the farm “a little piece of heaven on earth.”

It’s also an important part of Clemson’s research and Extension efforts in horticulture. Cooley has volunteered his property and his time to help Clemson conduct a number of research projects, including a sister weather station to the gray mold research being done on Mike Keisler’s Lexington County Strawberry farm.

“James has helped us with variety trials and virus studies,” Rollins said. “He fertilizes, prunes, and maintains pest control on this entire block of trees for our research use. He sees the long-term impact of this kind of work, not only to his own farm, but also to keeping the state’s entire industry sustainable and financially competitive.”

That vision led to Cooley’s selection as the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award for 2013. The award recognizes excellence in agricultural production and farm management, along with leadership in farm and community organizations.

“Our success is due to many people who have believed in our ideas and dreams,” Cooley said. “My mother and father taught me to value every customer, whether they buy a small bag or a trailer load. We believe strongly in South Carolina taste and quality.”

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