Advocating for Hillsborough County Agriculture

Marshal Sewell grew up in a strawberry farming family in Plant City wanting to be a farmer. Casey Simmons Runkles grew up in a strawberry farming family in Plant City wanting to be anything else.

Hillsborough County agriculture is fortunate that neither succeeded. They’re two of the area’s emerging agricultural leaders. But Sewell left his family farm to do it, and Simmons Runkles returned to hers. 

Sewell’s role traveling the nation as the strategic accounts manager for the seed company Seminis lends itself to his taking an active role in trade associations. Simmons Runkles’ flexible work schedule at Simmons Farms allows her to travel the state teaching producers how to safely handle the food they produce. She also served on the board of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association

Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, knows both families and expects big things from this rising generation.

“Local agriculture is built on the backs of multigenerational families, so it’s no surprise to see Marshal and Casey advocating for all of us,” Parker says. “They’re maybe more open to change than older leaders, but at the same time their family background gives them a sense of the history and tradition that makes Hillsborough County agriculture special.”

The continuing wave of newcomers to Tampa and the I-4 corridor who are generations removed from food production means the Hillsborough agriculture community needs not only to educate consumers, voters and neighbors, but it may require the active combatting of misinformation.

The stakes are high, Sewell says: “If we don’t engage, we potentially do not exist.”

Simmons Runkles says a successful industry depends upon engagement with political leaders. If they don’t know you, she says, they’re less likely to take in what you have to say. If it takes a run for office to get agriculture at the table, she’s open to that.

One place their path was the same: For the past three years, Sewell and Simmons Runkles have traveled throughout Florida and the United States taking deep dives into complex agricultural issues and developing the skills needed to address those issues. 

In July they graduated from the UF/IFAS Wedgworth Leadership Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources, joining an influential alumni network whose Hillsborough-Polk area members include Carl Bauman and John Bertram of Lykes Brothers, Tony Lopez of Metlife, Shane Platt of Farm Credit, Cammy Hinton of Hinton Farms, Mark Wheeler of Wheeler Farms and Sue Harrell of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

Sewell and Simmons Runkles are also graduates of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s Emerging Leader Development Program.

Sewell wants to represent Hillsborough way beyond the county line. Early this year, the International Fresh Produce Association invited him to serve on its technology council, where he can advance the interests of Hillsborough County, Florida and U.S. farmers.

Simmons Runkles identifies herself as an ag-vocate, and just as Sewell does, she describes engagement as an existential challenge. 

“Florida specialty crops are in a fight for our life. Unless things change, I don’t see my children farming,” Simmons Runkle says. “We need a single loud voice for ag because the goal of any grower is the same—healthy, good, quality food on the table at a price we can pay our bills.”

J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

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