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A closer look at Sheriff Farmer

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By Martin Steele

In the mid-1960s, a South Sumter High School student attending a “career day” session was enticed by representatives of the FBI to venture from the secure environs of Sumter County and head to our nation's capital to pursue a career in law enforcement.

That Tarrytown native, William Okla “Bill” Farmer, Jr., eventually returned to Sumter and has set a new benchmark in local law enforcement history – he is serving in a sixth term as county sheriff.

Farmer, first elected in 1996, has 20 years of service in the elected position and now has his focus on making that 24. When in early January he began his sixth term, Farmer, 69, broke the old record of five terms, or 20 years, held by the late Sheriff M.H. “Popie” Bowman.

Although he’s been serving for a considerable while, Farmer still has some years to go to claim longest serving sheriff in the state - that title appears to belong to the late Union County Sheriff Gerald M. "Jerry" Whitehead, who died in office barely short of 28 years at the post.

Regardless of who’s holding the record, Farmer’s path to the head of an agency with more than 400 employees had only a few curves. He grew up in the Tarrytown area where his father farmed and did carpentry between growing seasons, he said. He still lives on part of that farm property.

But, he was to take a path considerably removed from agriculture. After hearing a presentation from an FBI recruiter in high school, Farmer and two fellow students decided they would give the agency a try. “I was the only one that didn’t chicken out,” Farmer said during a recent interview. “It paid off in the long run.”

He went straight from high school to training in the FBI’s fingerprinting division, spending almost two years there before landing a job as a crime scene technician with the Duval County Sheriff’s Office.

Just months later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army where he served two years active duty and then four years in the reserves.

Then, it was back to Sumter. When he asked the sheriff at that time – the late Fred Roesel – about employment, there were only four deputies, Farmer said. But, Roesel told Farmer that if he got his law enforcement certification, he would give him a job when there was an opening.

So, Farmer worked on the certification and worked at Sumter Correctional Institution until the time came that he could become a Sumter County deputy sheriff in July 1971.

He’s almost made the sheriff's department his entire career - except for a four-year period in the late 1970s when he worked on the Wildwood and Webster police forces.

It’s been good,” Farmer said. “I came here and never looked back.”

He’s not only set a local record for serving in office, he’s won the post without opposition in the past four elections. “It’s an honor to run unopposed four times for what has sometimes been a hotly contested job,” Farmer said. “I hope it’s the way my men and women do their jobs and treat the public.”

His tenure has also come with a few other firsts for his department. Soon after Farmer took office, his department received state accreditation for its detention facility. It was the smallest jail in the state at that time to earn accreditation, Farmer said.

The next step was doing the same for the law enforcement division. Then, in 2015, Farmer’s office became the first in the state to receive accreditation in communications.

One of his next goals is to help get accreditation for the detention facility’s medical provider.

“It’s just a matter of adhering to the standards,” Farmer said. “It helps make us a better agency.”

The department strives for the best in training and equipment, he said, noting that the office has some of the best equipment available, including a mobile command center and an armored vehicle. “I would put any of it up against the best agencies.”

He’s also looking toward another big change when he makes the fourth location move since going to work at the department. This time, his office will be relocating to a new county public safety building in Wildwood. Both that and a satellite facility in Bushnell are currently under construction.

It’s helped to have a great working relationship with the county commission, Farmer said, noting that it’s also helped that the county’s tax base has grown considerably over the years.

“The public expects a certain amount of safety – police, fire and emergency response,” Farmer said. “I want to make sure Sumter is a better place to live, work and play.”

He’s also been honored to have served as president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, with the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch and the Salvation Army advisory board.

“I stay pretty busy,’ Farmer said. “I like what I’m doing.”

He apparently hasn’t decided what he’ll do when this term comes to an end. “I can’t say what will happen, I’ve not made any plans,” he said. “I’m still having fun. I just want to keep providing the best service we can.”

He’s also not the lone family member involved in protecting the public. He has a son who’s a law enforcement officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and a daughter who’s working at the federal prison.