SHAD SIMMONS: Continuing His Family's Agricultural Legacy
And Addressing the Contemporary Challenges Facing Strawberry Growers Today
By Jim Frankowiak
Shad Simmons is in the business of growing strawberries and vegetables in the Plant City area with his father, Earl W. “Billy” Simmons III. He is also the president of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.
Neither is surprising since the Simmons family name and agriculture go hand in hand as they have for generations in Plant City, beginning back in the mid-1800s. The same can be said of the family’s involvement in the association since it was formed in the early 80’s.
Shad’s grandfather, Earl W. “”E.W.” Simmons Jr., began farming on his own at the age of 15 when he planted his first crop of strawberries on land next to the family farm. He used the proceeds from his first two berry crops to purchase an adjacent 10-acre plot for $500. That land, which is located along Mud Lake Road south of Plant City, is still owned by the family and is part of E.W. Simmons Farms, Inc.
“He also ran a fertilizer business from his truck,” said Shad. In addition to strawberries, Shad’s grandfather raised a good deal of cabbage, beans, eggplant, kale, mustard greens, turnips and citrus.
E.W. devoted his life to agriculture, living in the same home until he passed in 2007. His father, Earl Simmons, was a Hillsborough County commissioner for 28 years until the early 1960s. The senior Simmons instilled a love for community service in his son and that has carried forward to Billy and on to Shad.
Billy and Carol Simmons have six children: brothers Chaun, Philip and Shad and sisters Casey, Evie and Brea. Shad and Casey Simmons Runkles are the only children involved in the family farm. Casey is chief financial officer, as well as an independent food safety consultant, serving both the Simmons Farm and other agricultural operations in the area.
Carol’s Plant City roots are deep, too. Her father, James Causey, was a Sherman tank operator in World War II and held the rank of master sergeant. He later worked with his parents at J. A. Causey Hardware Store on Evers Street and for South Florida Baptist Hospital and Shore Fertilizer.
Carol taught at Plant City High School and before getting into farming full-time in 1977, Billy worked for Equipment Services, involved in the maintenance and repair of equipment used in the phosphate mines.
After graduating from Durant High School in 1999, Shad had plans to pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering and then to become a pilot with the U.S. Air Force. “However, that plan came to an end when I ran up against a calculus class,” said Shad.
“I had worked on the family farm while growing up and in 2003 my dad offered me a job and I have been involved ever since.” Shad is farm manager with responsibility for day-to-day operations, while his father handles the other matters associated with the farm.
Three years after joining the family farm business, Shad married Leslie Thompson and they are the proud parents of four-year-old Shaz, who just earned his orange belt in karate.
Leslie is pursuing a nursing degree and is currently enrolled at Hillsborough Community College with plans to continue her education at Polk State and possibly beyond. Leslie, like Shad, is a lifelong resident of Plant City.
The Simmons family has been involved in the Florida Strawberry Growers Association since its beginnings in 1982. Initially it was Shad’s grandfather, then his father, who held the posts of association president, vice president and secretary and now Shad.
“The board still has representation from older growers, but there has been move to add younger members to the leadership,” said Shad. “I have found the experience both challenging and rewarding.”
The future for strawberry growers is not without challenges. “Among the most significant is the issue of labor,” said Shad. “It is important for us to have a readily available workforce and that has become an ongoing challenge. Some of the options that have been made available are simply not practical or economically viable. Add to that the need to adequately address our immigration policy on the long term basis.
“There has also been ongoing media attention over the issue of fumigants the last few seasons,” said Simmons. “Growers are in compliance with applicable regulations, but I have come to the belief that there is a small group of people who have an agenda that includes other issues and hoped for outcomes.” Simmons noted representatives of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been closely monitoring the fumigation situation.
“Growers utilizing the fumigant in question have been fully compliant with regulations regarding its use. In fact, some have gone beyond in the interest of community harmony.” The regulators continue to consider the fumigation matter, but to date have made no changes regarding either the use or application.
“Compliance with other, ever-changing regulations is also among the challenges we face as are effective control of production costs and managing introduction of new varieties of strawberries. And, we have competition from Mexico and California that becomes a factor as our season nears completion. Mother Nature is another factor that we face as growers have forever.”
The FSGA continues its funding of the development of new breeds of strawberries to further differentiate Plant City-grown strawberries from those originating elsewhere. Those monies come from royalties paid by growers worldwide who purchase Florida strawberry varieties developed by breeders at the University of Florida underwritten by the FSGA.
Simmons noted different options strawberry growers have exercised to meet some of these challenges. “We have opted to grow our farm from 33 to 150-acres since 2003, and we have diversified with different crops. We have devoted eight acres to blueberries this year and we plan to increase that to 15 acres over the next two years.”
“In the fall after planting our strawberries, we have also planted peppers. We do the same in the spring and both are done primarily to provide additional work for our workers,” he said. “Many growers are taking advantage of technological advances that help lower production costs and enhance sustainability.
Simmons noted his fellow growers work to help one another and share information. “If you have a question or need help, all it takes is a phone call and the answer or assistance is always available. That’s something that makes our industry strong even in the face of the ongoing challenges before us. I feel very confident in our future.”
In his spare time, Shad enjoys taking his airboat out on Lake Kissimmee, trail riding his jeep and watching Shaz improve his karate skills. “I used to hunt alligators, but have not had a chance the last few years,” he said, noting his biggest catch was “an eleven-footer.”
For information about the FSGA, picking strawberries, recipes for preparing desserts and more with Plant City strawberries, visit: http://flastrawberry.com.