Dr. Alto Straughn’s career in agricultural research, education, and commercial farming spans more than 50 years and has benefited both Florida agriculture and consumers. He is among Florida’s most progressive watermelon farmers, and his work with southern highbush blueberries helped launch a $40 million-a-year industry.
Born in 1934 in Walton County, Straughn grew up farming, hunting and fishing. He was active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America. During his student years at the University of Florida, he was well known for his strong work ethic and his keen interest in research and learning. He lived in a room at the Livestock Pavilion, worked for the Department of Animal Sciences, was a member of the Livestock Judging Team, and did sheep research on the weekends. He graduated with a master’s degree in animal science.
In 1959 Straughn began working as a UF/IFAS Extension agent in Marion County. Three years later, with the aid of a Kellogg Fellowship, he went to the University of Wisconsin, where he completed a doctoral degree in Extension administration in 1963.
Returning to Florida and the Extension Service, Straughn rose rapidly through the administrative ranks. After serving as assistant director, he became director of program evaluation and organizational development in 1971. As one of the agency’s key administrative leaders, he helped develop statewide planning and reporting systems and implement the county program review system. He pioneered the use of computers to enhance Extension’s response to client needs.
At the same time he was working for the Extension Service, Straughn was developing successful beef cattle, blueberry, watermelon, and timber farming operations—enterprises that now cover over 2,000 acres around Gainesville. He quickly gained a reputation as one of Florida’s most innovative growers, demonstrating again and again his ability to adjust to rapidly changing markets.
Straughn’s leadership and innovation in blueberry production have been crucial to the success of Florida’s blueberry industry. He now produces about one-third of all the blueberries in Florida, and he has worked closely with UF/IFAS researchers to conduct blueberry variety trials and demonstrate new production technologies at his farms. Leading blueberry researcher Paul Lyrene says Straughn has been indispensable to the UF/IFAS blueberry research program and estimates the value of Straughn’s support over the past 15 years at almost a million dollars.
In the 1980s Straughn initiated the Florida blueberry industry’s move away from rabbiteye varieties toward the more-productive southern highbush varieties and showed that these varieties could be grown profitably on a large scale. He helped build markets for Florida blueberries where none had existed. Straughn has been an innovator in freeze protection methods, pollination techniques, harvesting methods, and packing and distributing He pioneered growing blueberries in pine-bark beds under plastic mulch and tunnels, using drip irrigation and fertigation. Many of the practices now commonly used by growers in Florida were first shown to be superior on Straughn’s blueberry farms.
Straughn has been an innovator for the Florida watermelon industry, too. Twenty years ago he was the first in North Florida to grow and market seedless watermelons on a large scale. In addition, he was an early adopter of new watermelon production technologies, including polyethylene mulch and drip irrigation. UF/IFAS research results on new technologies were more readily transferred to the Florida watermelon industry because Straughn adopted these technologies and assisted the Extension Service in educating his fellow watermelon producers about their benefits. Straughn is a strong supporter of the annual UF Extension Watermelon Institute, where the latest research results and recommendations are presented to watermelon producers from all over the Southeast.
Straughn is generous with his knowledge and his time, selflessly sharing his expertise with other growers. He is an active member of the Florida Farm Bureau, the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association, the National Watermelon Promotion Board, the North American Blueberry Council, and the Florida Blueberry Growers Association. He has provided financial support for more than a dozen graduate students in the University of Florida’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and has initiated endowment programs to provide financial support for Extension 4-H faculty and for the professional improvement of other Extension faculty.
His leadership in the agriculture industry has earned him honors, including the 2005 Gamma Sigma Delta Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award and the 1997 Cooperator of the Year Award from the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association.
Alto Straughn and his wife, Patrecia, live in Waldo. They have two grown daughters, Lynn and Rita, and eight grandchildren.