Michael McDowell of Vernon Hill, Virginia, has quietly worked over the past 45 years to responsibly steward his family farm into the future.

This year, the Virginia Tech alumnus’ efforts are being publicly recognized: McDowell was selected as the state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award.

Over the past 30 years of competition, Swisher International — through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand — has recognized and honored outstanding southeastern farmers selected through a nomination and judging process. The company has given away some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors, according to a company press release.

As the Virginia winner, McDowell will receive a $2,500 cash award and a trip to the Sunbelt Expo, where he will join nine other state finalists who are eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner.

The self-described “bivocational” farmer and pastor was nominated by his longtime family friend and mentee who became his local Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for Halifax County, Rebekah Slabach.

McDowell has grown three rented acres of farm into a 1,200-acre operation, where he and his family manage a leading Virginia herd of registered Angus cattle. He has also raised three children with his high school sweetheart and wife, Wanda; practices ministry at a local Baptist Church; mentors the next generation of farmers through 4-H and FFA; and helped found and directs the Halifax County Cattlemen’s Association, among other responsibilities.

"We achieved some goals," McDowell said simply.

Humble beginnings for Locust Level Farm

Located in Halifax County, Locust Level Farm started as part of a sharecropping agreement McDowell made with his father, a tobacco farmer. When McDowell turned 16, his father proposed that he could either work on the farm and receive all of his living expenses covered, or he could rent three acres and pocket the money he made to pay his own way through college.

McDowell opted for the latter. “With it being mine, and receiving the benefits from it, I just really treasured it and the opportunity to manage that,” he said.

When the time came to choose where he’d go to college, his frequent field trips with the Future Farmers of America organization to Virginia Tech made the decision an easy one.

“It just felt like, if I was going into agriculture, that's where I needed to be,” McDowell said.

McDowell studied animal science and agronomy in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and graduated in 1978 as salutatorian of his class.

He and Wanda moved back to Halifax and purchased more land to continue his family’s tobacco and row crop operation. Together, they took on the commercial cattle portion of his father’s farm, which McDowell recognized might have more potential than tobacco, as quota cuts for the product loomed.

Transitioning to a seed stock Angus cattle operation

With the knowledge from his undergraduate studies, McDowell saw an opportunity in an untapped market for purebred Black Angus cattle. He began putting together a herd with partners across the state, learning along the way.

In the 1990s, McDowell became one of Virginia's first to use artificial insemination and estrus synchronization with his cattle. He now builds herds in the top percentile of performance genetics and has had several bulls featured as national artificial insemination studs. A Beef Quality Assurance certified trainer, McDowell places 50-60 registered bulls each year, selling to both commercial and purebred operators.

Locust Level Farm was the first Angus seedstock farm in Virginia to use the "Virginia Finest" designation approved by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in marketing bulls.

All of his practices — from rotational grazing to genetic selection to embryo transfer programs with veterinary consultation from his eldest daughter and her husband — are part of McDowell’s Farm Conservation Plan and Grazing Plan, developed with the help of researchers at Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University. Both universities also have cooperative extension research plots on the land.

“His support for agricultural research and integrating new findings into the operation does not have limits,” Slabach wrote in McDowell’s nomination letter.

Feats beyond the farm

McDowell’s impressive pivot from tobacco dependance to an ahead-of-the-curve cattle operation is one of the reasons Slabach nominated him. But she said there’s a slew of other reasons why McDowell makes the perfect nominee — most notably, his dedication to service and helping the next generation.

McDowell is one of the founders and now director for the Halifax County Cattlemen’s Association, focused on providing education and outreach for local and area beef producers. He also serves as a board member for the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, working to bring better rural broadband and cell service to farm families in remote areas.

McDowell is active in a number of local and state industry associations and has hosted field days on his farm. For as long as Slabach has been an agent, McDowell has hosted numerous field days, tours, and veterninary health programs that help educate producers.

Slabach has known McDowell as a mentor for even longer. In his 45 years as a farmer, McDowell has mentored many other young farmers, high schoolers, agriculture students, and FFA and 4-H members, including the daughter of former Virginia Tech president T. Marshall Hanh. For him, mentoring the younger generation was just a given — but the joy of it clicked for him one day, when a young man he was working with asked him how he knew so much about the tasks they’d been doing that day.

"It kind of dawned on me that so many youngsters come up, they don't know how to pull cables out of a fence, they don't know how to split wood,” McDowell said. “It's just so much fun to teach them practical, useful things that they can do on a day-to-day basis that they don't have to call Angie's list to find out who can fix something for them."

McDowell now mostly splits his time between farming, pastoring, and family. His three children — who all studied at Virginia Tech — have each become doctors and moved back to Halifax, bringing with them eight total grandchildren. Virginia’s most recent Farmer of the Year says his family remains his proudest accomplishment.

"Because they're a product of the farm,” he said. “They would not be who they are had they been reared any place other than here.”

Previous state winners from Virginia include: Nelson Gardner of Bridgewater, 1990; Russell Inskeep of Culpepper, 1991; Harry Bennett of Covington, 1992; Hilton Hudson of Alton, 1993; Buck McCann of Carson, 1994; George M. Ashman, Jr. of Amelia, 1995; Bill Blalock of Baskerville, 1996; G. H. Peery III of Ceres, 1997; James Bennett of Red House, 1998; Ernest Copenhaver of Meadowview, 1999; John Davis of Port Royal, 2000; James Huffard III of Crockett, 2001; J. Hudson Reese of Scottsburg, 2002; Charles Parkerson of Suffolk, 2003; Lance Everett of Stony Creek, 2004; Monk Sanford of Orange, 2005; Paul House of Nokesville, 2006; Steve Berryman of Surry, 2007; Tim Sutphin of Dublin, 2008; Billy Bain of Dinwiddie, 2009; Wallick Harding of Jetersville, 2010; Donald Horsley of Virginia Beach, 2011; Maxwell Watkins of Sutherland, 2012; Lin Jones of New Canton, 2013; Robert T. “Tom” Nixon II of Rapidan, 2014; Donald Turner of North Dinwiddie, 2015; Tyler Wegmeyer of Hamilton, 2016; and Robert Mills, Jr., of Callands, 2017; Paul Rogers, Jr. of Wakefield, 2018.

Virginia has had three overall winners, Nelson Gardner, of Bridgewater, 1990; Charles Parkerson, of Suffolk, 2003; and Robert Mills Jr., of Callands, 2017.

—Written by Erica Corder