In 1975, Illinois native Randall E. “Randy” Strode took a leave of absence from his high school basketball coaching and biology teaching job to come to Florida. Strode’s goal was to learn about horticulture so he could teach the topic.

He learned quickly about the horticulture industry, especially the then-new technique of tissue culture. After working for others in this new Florida industry, he started his own business, Agri-Starts, Inc., specializing in tropical foliage and landscape plants. He never went back to the Illinois teaching job.

Strode lives in Longwood, Fla., and his operation is located nearby on about 25 acres near Apopka, Fla. “We produce a wide variety of plants, including tropical foliage, ornamentals, perennials, and more,” says Strode. He estimates that he and his 60 employees maintain 1,200 to 1,300 plant varieties. The Agri-Starts production facilities include 126,000 square feet under greenhouses and another 30,000 square feet under shade facilities.

As a result of his long and successful career as a grower of horticultural plants, Strode has been selected as the 2008 Florida winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Strode now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 14 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

As a child, Strode worked on farms owned by his grandfather and uncles. He walked soybeans, de-tasseled corn, raised pigs, looked after dairy cows and baled hay.

When he arrived in Florida, he met Ray Oglesby, a nursery operator who had started plant tissue culture in Florida. Oglesby hired Strode because of his knowledge of the metric system. “I worked for him for six and a half years, and he got me active in industry organizations such as the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association,” he recalls. Strode has since become active in a number of horticultural and community organizations and has served as an advisor for several educational institutions.

He also worked three years for a subsidiary of the Weyerhaeuser timber company that had also owned a nursery specializing in tissue culture. In 1984, he and a Weyerhaeuser co-worker decided to start their own tissue culture company they named Agri-Starts.

The co-worker who helped found the Agri-Starts has since retired, and Strode now runs the company. Agri-Starts is a wholesale supplier of starter plants for the commercial nursery industry. Agri-Starts also provides research and development work specializing in proprietary and licensed plant propagation.

Agri-Starts has also been a family enterprise for the Strodes. During the early years of the business, his wife Vicki helped out with the initial construction and in keeping payroll records. Their oldest son Ty has been working five years full time for the business and is responsible for trade show exhibits, catalog sales, local sales and the overall marketing effort. Son Taylor is the firm’s shipping manager. And their youngest son Cody is a University of Central Florida student who will graduate this year.

Tissue culture creates plants in a sterile, disease-free artificial environment, and once the plants are created, they are pushed to grow with the help of liquid nutrients and plant growth regulators. This process speeds the development of oddball plants called sports that can offer exciting new colors or unusual foliage patterns. Agri-Starts has also patented a number of these new plants.

Tissue culture also is labor-intensive, and Strode is excited about new technology he is developing to eliminate much of the hand labor. He has also built state-of-the-art greenhouses in which large trays of plants are moved to worker stations. Water conservation measures in the greenhouses allow 90 percent of the irrigation water to be reused.

In addition, Strode has adopted robotic technology to streamline the fertilizing, watering and re-potting of plants.

The firm’s annual production is impressive, about four million tropical foliage plants per year, six million landscape plants per year and two million food crop plants per year.

Over the years, Agri-Starts spawned several similar businesses specializing in tissue culture. “At one time, there were five Agri-Starts companies that I sold to others, but now the one I originally started is the main one of those companies that is still in business,” he says. “By franchising these other Agri-Start companies, we were able to grow at a faster rate than if we had kept everything within one company. We bought back one of those companies that we hope to turn around and the others were closed by their owners for various reasons.”

“After my partner and I started the company in 1984, we had a 10- to 12-year honeymoon period where our business grew and grew,” Strode recalls. But changes came to the marketplace, as more plant nurseries and foreign-owned companies started offering tissue-cultured plants. “As a result, foliage and tissue culture faces a mature market,” he observes.

As the market matured, Strode found himself guessing what types of plants might be in demand, and then produced those plants to meet the anticipated demand. He guessed wrong on some, but found success at times in producing coleus, papayas, bananas, and more recently, blueberries.

He has developed and marketed a number of Alocasia varieties, commonly known as elephant ears. Alocasia is a diverse plant family with varieties of many shapes, sizes and colors. He has also successfully sold Spathiphyllum plants commonly known as peace lilies, Syngonium plants popular as indoor hanging baskets and another group of elephant ear varieties from Xanthosoma plants that can grow six to eight feet tall.

One of his major successes came with the Black Magic variety of Colocasia. In tropical countries, Colocasia is cultivated as a food plant for its taro roots. Strode recalls how a widely read article in Southern Living magazine featured Black Magic and prompted a surge in demand that he was able to help provide. Black Magic is an annual, a largeleafed ornamental landscape and water-loving plant known for its rapid growth.

“Bananas are an interesting and a fun crop for us,” he adds. “Bananas are grown by farmers in Texas, Louisiana and Florida, and now about three-fourths of the banana plants are sold as ornamentals.” His catalogue lists close to 50 banana varieties for sale.

He’s currently excited about the growing market for blueberry plants, as more Florida growers begin putting in plants for commercial production. Agri-Starts is a licensed producer for University of Florida-developed blueberry varieties.

Pat Cockrell with Florida Farm Bureau is the state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year award in Florida. Tom Hill, field representative with Florida Farm Bureau, nominated Strode for the award. Hill says Strode has provided impressive educational tours of his facilities for Ag in the Classroom teachers. Hill says Strode also received strong support for the award from the Orange County Farm Bureau board of directors.

“I’ve always had a love for science and farming, and I have combined these two loves to become a farmer-scientist,” says Strode.

As the Florida state winner, Strode will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo in Moultrie, Ga., from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a jacket and a $200 gift certificate from the Williamson-Dickie Company, and a $500 gift certificate from Southern States.

He is also now eligible for the $14,000 that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, a custom made Canvasback gun safe from Misty Morn Safe Co., and another $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative. Also, Williamson-Dickie will provide another jacket, a $500 gift certificate and $500 in cash to the overall winner.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year Award for the 19th consecutive year.

Swisher has contributed some $724,000 in cash awards and other honors to Southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

Previous state winners from Florida include: Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1990; Ernie Nunez of Dade City, 1991; Wayne Wiggins of Plant City, 1992; Leroy Baldwin of Ocala, 1993; Billy Long of Apopka, 1994; Richard Barber of Ocala, 1995; Al Bellotto of Lakeland, 1996; Rex Clonts of Apopka, 1997; John Hoblick of DeLeon Springs, 1998; Doug Holmberg of Valrico, 1999; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2000, Gene Batson of Mount Dora, 2001; William Putnam of Alturas, 2002; Sonny Williamson of Okeechobee, 2003; Dale Sauls of Anthony, 2004; Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee, 2005; Damon Deas of Jennings, 2006; and Alto “Bud” Adams of Ft. Pierce, 2007.

Florida has had five overall winners with Ernie Nunez of Dade City in 1991, Leroy Baldwin of Ocala in 1993, Rex Clonts of Apopka in 1997, Doug Holmberg of Valrico in 1999, and Louis “Red” Larson of Okeechobee in 2005.