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Peach grower named farmer of year

As a young man, Joe Mitcham Jr. considered a career in medicine. But being a Ruston, La., native, he naturally had to try his patience with peaches. That business decision paid off when Mitcham was named the 2004 Louisiana Farmer of the Year at the Lod Cook Alumni Center in Baton Rouge.

Mitcham was selected as Farmer of the Year from a field of three finalists. The others recognized for their significant contributions to Louisiana agriculture were Ricky Gonsoulin, a sugarcane farmer from New Iberia, La., and Alton Lewing, a poultry producer from Sabine Parish, La.

The Farmer of the Year and other finalists were honored at an annual banquet sponsored by the Louisiana Agri-News Network, Louisiana Dodge Dealers, Louisiana John Deere Agricultural Dealers and the LSU AgCenter.

This year's hard-working winner manages 115 acres of mature peach trees producing more than 15,000 bushels a year. In addition, in the middle of his orchard, Mitcham operates a specialty store featuring peach products and arts and crafts produced by local residents. The idea for the store came to him after some prodding from Mother Nature.

“We had a severe hail storm and I thought, ‘What could we do with all these damaged peaches?’ We started making a peach preserve, and then a byproduct of preserve was a lot of peach juice,” Mitcham explained. “Then we came up with unusual items, such as a peach salsa, which is half tomato, half peach. A lot of people seem to like it.”

In another innovative move, because of growing concerns about the depletion of the Sparta aquifer, Mitcham developed a series of catch ponds for irrigation. And the pumps he uses to move water from smaller catch ponds to the large holding pond are solar-powered.

After losing his crop to freezes four times, Mitcham adapted wind machines that are used by apple growers in the Northwest to protect his peach trees.

“They are quite expensive — about $16,000 to $18,000 a piece. But I have 11 of them now,” he explained. “That's how much I believe in them. If conditions are right, they will raise the temperature in the orchard about 5 degrees.”

To extend his season from mid-May to mid-August, Mitcham grows 28 different peach varieties. His duties translate into long, hot summer days, but it's a prescription for success he gladly fills.

“I like being in the outdoors,” Mitcham said of his work. “If I want to work 14-hour days, that's fine with me. It's hard work lots of time, but it's very rewarding.”

As for the other finalists, Gonsoulin has farmed sugarcane for 17 years and is an innovator in the sugarcane industry. He is in the second year of a no-tillage sugarcane test plot that could revolutionize the way sugarcane is grown in Louisiana. He also is active in many agricultural commodity groups and is a recent graduate of the LSU AgCenter Agricultural Leadership Development Program.

Last year Gonsoulin grew 200 acres of soybeans as a summer cover crop and for additional production. But he says home sweet home will always be the sugarcane fields of Iberia Parish. “I have no desire to leave this operation unless financially we are no longer able to make a profit. Until that day I'm going to be striving to increase ways to do that,” Gonsoulin said.

The other finalist, Lewing, oversees three poultry farms just outside of Florien. In that capacity, he raised nearly 2 million broilers last year, and his task is to produce a 4-pound bird from one-day-old chicks delivered to his farm — and to do so in 38 days or less.

Lewing has retrofitted his tunnel houses with the latest computer equipment to monitor temperature and air quality, the two most crucial factors in determining growth rates.

Complementing his poultry business is a successful cow-calf operation. But while he enjoys working with cattle, Lewing realizes the importance of his poultry enterprise. “I've always liked the chicken industry from the time I started with just two houses 30 years ago, through good times and bad,” he commented, adding, “It's always paid my bills, and I've always been happy doing it.”

As part of being selected Farmer of the Year, Mitcham receives $1,000, a one-year lease on a Dodge truck and a 150-hour lease on a John Deere tractor. For being named finalists, Gonsoulin and Lewing each receive $500.

“We are pleased to be a part of this program to recognize the outstanding members of Louisiana's vital agricultural industries,” LSU AgCenter Chancellor William B. “Bill” Richardson said. “We congratulate all the dedicated men and women in agriculture who work hard each day to provide us with the food and fiber we need.”

Craig Gautreaux writes for the LSU AgCenter.

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