Straughn Farms, LLC

Commissioner's 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 converted the land to blueberry production.

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.

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.

Alto Straughn’s experience in agriculture began on the family farm in Northwest Florida, developing skills that would bring him success. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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. -- 2011

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Straughn (12:59) [Windows Media Video 70.94 MB]
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