Title: 2011 Ag-Environmental: Straughn Farms, LLC
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
Successful crops don’t just happen. It takes years of hard work and trial and error for many plant varieties just to take root in Florida. Blueberries are a good example.
Already a leader in the watermelon industry, Alto Straughn was looking for a potential new crop when a farming friend suggested blueberries. Around this time, with the failure of several farms, the blueberry had gained a reputation as a bad crop. But in 1982, after much research, Alto bought a bankrupt dairy farm in Alachua County and had consultants look at the property to see if it might be right for blueberries.
Alto Straughn: “Got a couple of people come over one day and looked at it and they said, yeah, good blueberry land, good blueberry land. Well, it wasn’t good blueberry land, but that’s the way I got launched into the business.”
Starting with 25 acres, Straughn worked closely with researchers from the University of Florida to test new varieties and determine best production practices. From the outset, there were difficulties growing the recommended Rabbiteye varieties. Problems with the pH of the water, insects, and poor pollination prompted Straughn to successfully transition from Rabbiteye to the earlier-ripening Southern Highbush varieties. Recognizing Straughn’s strength’s as a grower, Dr. Paul Lyrene asked him to grow UF’s experimental varieties on his farm. He agreed and provided the land, labor and irrigation for the experiments.
Paul Lyrene: “Alto has generously over the last 15 years given us a lot of land which he allowed us to plant then took care of the plants then all we had to do was go look at them. He was a good grower and as our testing got bigger and bigger we more or less relied on him totally to grow our big plats for us. He’s done a wonderful job of it.”
Now, with 700 acres of berries, it’s clear that the collaboration was very beneficial for both Straughn and the University’s program.
With time, hard work, and at great personal expense, Alto Straughn not only established one of the state’s first successful large-scale blueberry farms, he forged a partnership with the university that would be the foundation of Florida’s $65 million blueberry industry.
Bradley Ferguson: “He’s helped a lot of people in the agriculture industry by taking risk on his own. Even if it costs a substantial amount of money, he’s always willing to put himself out there and take the risk to earn that information. In that respect he’s basically paid for a lot of the knowledge that he’s earned through experience, success and failure in farming.”
Alto Straughn’s experience in agriculture began on the family farm in Northwest Florida, developing skills that would bring him success.
Lynn Straughn: “He lived in the backwoods where they did a lot of hunting and tracking, and I thought before that perhaps he used some of those skills that he developed in his farming with that close observation, and then being able to do the kind of mental puzzling or problem solving to see what cause and effect or what possibly could make a difference.”
His father traveled for work so, as the only son with four sisters, Alto took on a lot of responsibilities. As a student at the University of Florida he was driven: double majoring as an undergraduate, then earning his master’s in one year. After marrying Patrecia Simmons, another animal science student, he went on to receive his doctorate in extension administration from the University of Wisconsin on a Kellogg Foundation grant. Straughn returned to Gainesville as an assistant professor and extension program specialist, assisting county extension agents to determine their clients needs. After hours he worked to build his own cattle, timber and watermelon operations.
Rita Straughn: “I would see him every morning he would put on his coat and tie and go to work, and then when he came home he was the farmer, and he always had on his cap and his jeans and maybe a denim jacket or a T-shirt. If you didn’t know him and saw him outside of their normal experience, they would have been surprised.”
Alto Straughn: “Well, the observation that I made during my lifetime is, in all commodities, probably in all business, things change. And they change more rapidly than people realize, the inputs and the marketers and the cultural practices and all, technology. All of this changes. And number one, even if you stay in the same industry you have to make the changes constantly.”
Having continuously grown watermelons across the state since 1968, Alto has witnessed changes in water regulations for Florida’s farmers. Anticipating more, he researched ways to modify his growing methods for conservation, efficiency and productivity. One of the first famers in the state to grow melons using drip tape and plastic mulch, he applied that technology to his blueberries. Later, he installed a pulse pumping system which delivers a small amount of pH-balanced water and nutrients numerous times a day, virtually eliminating any leaching into the soil.
Hugh Thomas, Suwannee River Partnership: “He is on the forefront, he’s very progressive, and he is very innovative. He is willing to look at different avenues of conserving water, conserving fertilizer out here, yet increasing yield in his crop.”
Looking for ways to reduce agriculture’s draw on the aquifer, Straughn’s research led him to “high tunnels.” Typically covering a quarter-acre, each high tunnel raises the ambient air temperature substantially, thus keeping it warmer longer. Not only did this reduce the need to pump water for freeze protection, it reduced by about 50 percent the water previously needed to nourish and protect the plants. The warmer air also enables the bushes to stay evergreen which can double their yields.
Expensive and labor intensive, a lot was riding on the decision to put the half-hoop structures on Straughn’s farms, but the gamble paid off. Working with his grandsons, Bradley Ferguson and Kyle Straughn, Alto now has 300 different varieties of blueberries planted in the structures. They are part of an experiment to find two or three that meet the criteria to make the berries more marketable.
Early on Straughn understood that knowing how to market a crop was almost as important as knowing how to grow it. The first in Florida to grow seedless watermelons, his success helped increase the melon’s market share from less than 5 percent to 70 percent. For blueberries, finding a variety that ripens at a time of year when they can’t be harvested elsewhere translates into higher demand and better prices.
Straughn is also looking for heartier plants that can be mechanically harvested. With labor to pick berries becoming more difficult to find, Straughn is planting all of his new fields to accommodate machine harvesting.
Patrecia Straughn: “He’s an extremely intelligent man. He’s very focused and he is a problem solver. I sometimes call him a ‘John Wayne’ because he comes to the rescue when no one else can figure out what’s wrong or what to do about it.”
Kyle Straughn: “One of the best lessons I’ve learned from Alto is that you can accomplish anything that you want in this life. It takes hard work and diligence and focus and he has all those qualities both in his professional and personal life.”
For Straughn, his greatest yield is information. From all his successes and failures he has collected a lifetime of knowledge that he freely shares.
Tom Paulling: “If you ask him a question he’ll answer it in full. And he’d do that for anyone.”
Melissa Hawthorne: “He has a very collaborative approach. He wants to share information with everybody, even people who you might consider a competitor. But by sharing information I think he accomplishes a lot by getting everyone involved, as many people as he can and the industry involved to solve a problem.”
Alto has traveled the world sharing his knowledge and gaining information of blueberry production from growers in other nations.
Sharing has been the hallmark of his 31-year career with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Service. He worked hard to ensure all of the information gathered at its research stations was disseminated to the extension agents throughout Florida. Under his leadership, his office was one of the first in the nation to introduce computer technology to enhance the extension’s response to its clientele. So strongly does he believe in the work of the state’s extension agents he has donated money for the Alto and Patrecia Straughn Extension Professional Development Center on UF’s campus for in-service training.
Ken DeVries: “He’s passionate about what he supports as evidenced by his gift that he has made of the building; also his willingness to learn. He’s always looking for a new way to do something better, and once he learns, he’s always willing to share with other folks. And that’s something that’s rare; and that’s what’s going to happen in that building.”
In addition to continued partnerships with UF -- such as a grant to study high-density strawberries and peppers grown in pine bark in Alto’s greenhouses -- he has also funded more projects of his own. With the university’s Honey Bee Research Lab, he has sponsored a two-year study on ensuring healthy hives and native bees for pollination. A particular passion of his, Alto serves on the national native bee committee, and continues to learn a lot about honeybees and bee pollination. He supported a graduate student’s 3-year study to solve disease problems in blueberries. With the emergence of the blueberry as a “superfood,” Straughn is financially supporting research with UF’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Department looking into the potential of blueberry extract as a nutriceutical. His granddaughter, Melissa Hawthorne, manages the project.
Today, Straughn’s Waldo, Windsor and Archer farms in Alachua County cover more than 2,000 acres and are going strong. Alto has delegated a lot of the farms’ day-to-day operations -- now he mostly decides on expansion, replanting and berry varieties – which gives him a bit more time for fishing and playing his weekly pickup game of basketball. His team has won a national title in its age group. But he isn’t about to give up his 50-plus year career in farming completely. He still enjoys the challenge of creating something dynamic and watching it thrive.
Alto Straughn: “I enjoy what I do, I truly do. It’s the challenge to be able to envision what you can do with a piece of land, like three years ago when we bought the piece of land across the highway, I said in three years we can have this cleared we can have plants there, we can have tunnels up we can be producing 7,000 pounds of berries an acre. And to be able to do that and do it on time is a real satisfaction to me. It’s a sense of accomplishment. It’s not accomplishing one thing in one day, it’s the bigger picture accomplishing that.”