FloridAgriculture eNewsletter 2021
Matt Stephenson-Smith, Collier County Farm Bureau President
Meet Matt Stephenson-Smith, newly elected President of Collier County Farm Bureau’s Board of Directors. Matt is a proud fifth generation native Floridian who grew up in Central Florida where the Smith branch of his family tree operated a modest beef cattle and citrus operation in Center Hill. Upon graduating from Hernando High School in Brooksville, he remained local to attend classes and play baseball at Pasco-Hernando State College for a couple seasons before transferring to Santa Fe College in Gainesville to complete an AA degree in preparation to transfer to University of Florida.
While attending UF, Matt made a fateful decision that would change the course of his life forever. “It was the “Golden Era” at UF during which time “Head Ball Coach” Steve Spurrier’s Gators won the school’s first football national championship, and at the time I was a struggling English major also working full time as an O.R. clerk at North Florida Regional Hospital,” he recalls. “One Friday afternoon I received an urgent call from farm manger Elvie Engle with SixLs Farms during which he offered me a newly-created position supervising the loading area at Farm 7 on the southeast side of Naples.
He wanted my answer about 36 hours later that Sunday evening. I consider Elvie a mentor and friend, and I am blessed to have his influence in both my professional and personal life.” Matt accepted the position, gave his notice at the hospital, and after two weeks packed his Jeep and headed for Southwest Florida to live and work at Farm 7. SixLs Farms has in recent years rebranded itself Lipman Produce and was then and is now one of the nation’s largest privately-owned vegetable production companies. This would mark the beginning of his ongoing 23-year career in agriculture.
Matt held several other positions with Lipman from 1997-2002 including assistant vegetable crop foreman, irrigation foreman, and finally tomato crop foreman before leaving Lipman to begin the next nearly 16-year-long chapter of his career as greenhouse/safety manger with BHN Research/BHN Seed, the research and development division of Naples-based fresh market tomato and potato grower/packer/shipper Gargiulo, Inc. “One of my most demanding job responsibilities was coordinating with up to eight PhD plant breeders and pathologists from locations in California and Chile as well as Immokalee to organize, manage, and complete much of the tremendous volume of “blue collar” work required to successfully execute their numerous, intensive breeding and pathology programs. A major component of that work was growing healthy transplants for the greenhouse breeding benches and field trial plots, and then continuing to grow the containerized greenhouse breeding bench plants to maturity for evaluation, hybridization, fruit harvest, and ultimately seed extraction.”
Managing BHN’s IPM/spray program was also among Matt’s many job responsibilities, which is why in November 2017 he received a call from the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of OmniLytics, Inc. to inform him of the departure of OmniLytics’ previous AgriPhage sales representative. AgriPhage is a natural, biological bactericide certified for use in organic production in several vegetable and fruit crops including tomatoes and peppers. Matt had made the AgriPhage formulations for tomatoes and peppers an integral part of his IPM program for over a decade and had thereby achieved a level of expertise with AgriPhage, and no previous OmniLytics sales representative had ever been a grower who had used the product.
It was during that November 2017 phone conversation with OmniLytics’ COO that Matt’s recruitment to fill the vacant sales representative/account executive position began. Matt had enjoyed a long, successful tenure at BHN, and even though the opportunity was in a facet of the ag industry that would be new to him and would also require him to learn and hone a new skill set, Matt’s belief in and advocacy of AgriPhage and the OmniLytics organization made the unexpected opportunity seem like a near-perfect fit.
A brief period of recruitment, prayerful consideration, and successful negotiation inspired Matt to take a leap of faith and seize the opportunity to become OmniLytics’ AgriPhage sales representative/account executive in January 2018. Matt’s current sales territory includes Florida, Georgia, and Puerto Rico (Certis is OmniLytics’ AgriPhage distribution partner for the other lower 46 states), but Matt is always available to enthusiastically offer any assistance he can provide to an existing or prospective AgriPhage user anywhere.
Determined to earn a degree from his beloved University of Florida where he left “unfinished [academic] business” all those years ago, Matt applied for readmission to UF in late 2009, but this time had the wisdom to allow his then 14-year career in agriculture to inspire him to apply for readmission to the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS). CALS Dean Dr. Elaine Turner, then Associate Dean, conducted Matt’s Spring 2010 interview that garnered her approval of his readmission to UF CALS into either the Horticultural Science or Horticultural Production-Vegetable Row Crop programs, either of which would have required Matt to eventually return to Gainesville.
First, there was a very long list of program prerequisites populated with many math and science courses Matt needed to complete, so Dr. Turner graciously gave him her permission to “stay home” to gradually complete those prerequisite courses at local Southwest Florida institutions. This allowed Matt to remain with his family and gainfully employed at BHN while he slowly chipped-away at the prerequisite list one course and semester at a time.
Though his family endured a divorce in 2011, prioritizing his two young sons Matt managed to balance his parenting, work, and academic priorities to eventually complete his program prerequisites over the next few years. However, upon completion of his prerequisites Matt chose to remain in Naples to parent his sons instead of returning to Gainesville to begin his CALS on-campus program. This resulted in an academic hiatus that lasted over two years until another fortuitous encounter with Dr. Turner at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new lab and office wing at UF/IFAS SWFREC in Immokalee.
Though several years had passed since Matt’s Spring 2010 interview, Dr. Turner recognized him across a crowded auditorium, greeted him warmly, and asked for an academic progress report. Dr. Turner quickly processed the news of the divorce, completion of prerequisites, and resulting hiatus before skillfully combining traits of an academic advisor, psychologist, and motivational speaker to masterfully guide Matt to strongly consider pivoting to CALS’ only UF Online program.
The UF Online program required the additional prerequisites Chemistry II and Calculus, but the program’s online platform allowed Matt to remain in Naples to continue to be the parent his sons needed. Thanks in no small part to Dr. Turner’s guidance, Matt decided to pivot to the UF Online program to resume and complete his academic quest, but not before another year-long hiatus which began with the recovery from Hurricane Irma and ended with a transition to a new employer and job.
Finally, last May during the global pandemic that denied Matt and his fellow Spring 2020 graduates the opportunity to “walk” in the traditional on-campus commencement ceremony, he quietly graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Environmental Management in Agriculture and Natural Resources. “If you want something badly enough, and set your mind to achieve a goal, you will find the motivation and discipline to make the difficult, necessary sacrifices and do the work required to achieve that goal,” he said.
“That work will require if not demand your time, attention, and effort to achieve your desired level of success, and often those sacrifices and demands may seem to be more than you may be willing and able to give. You must be absolutely driven to endure, persevere, and grind through those challenges to achieve a goal if it is important enough to you. You get out of it what you put into it. My academic accomplishments are proof that if I can do it, anyone can do it.” Matt also aspires to become a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA), has already passed the International CCA exam in 2020, and hopes to also pass the Local CCA exam in 2021 to earn the certification.
Matt was nominated and elected to Collier County Farm Bureau’s Board of Directors during the Board’s September 2020 hybrid in-person/Zoom meeting, then it was announced the Board president and vice-president would both be vacating their respective seats, so about 10 minutes after being elected to the Board Matt was again nominated and elected to fill the vacated president’s seat. Matt “hit the ground running” in his new role as Collier County and all the county Farm Bureau boards throughout the state prepared for the October 22 Florida Farm Bureau Federation Annual Meeting which due to COVID-19 was held virtually for the first time in the organization’s history.
Matt was also chosen to serve as one of Collier County’s two voting delegates for the virtual annual meeting, so much of his time and attention in September and October was devoted to attending the Zoom meetings and e-ballot training sessions to prepare to participate in the virtual annual meeting and Florida Farm Bureau state vice president election which transpired smoothly and was a ringing success.
November’s Collier County Farm Bureau Board meeting saw the Board’s attention return to its local Farm Bureau business including the decision to undertake an ambitious ag promotional/fundraising event that will take the form of Collier County Farm Bureau’s first watermelon festival and rodeo to be held at the Collier County Fairgrounds May 7-9, 2021. “I am very excited about our inaugural Collier County Farm Bureau Watermelon Festival and Rodeo, and our Board aspires for this festival and rodeo to become an annual event that will grow in scope and attendance over the coming years” Matt said.
The event is intended to promote local agriculture, notably the seasonal watermelon industry, promote new membership within Collier County Farm Bureau, and generate much needed revenue that will be used to award micro-grants to local teachers who include Florida agricultural literacy programs in their curriculums, provide scholarships to high school graduates aspiring to agricultural academic programs, sponsor/support local FFA and 4-H programs, and facilitate Collier County Farm Bureau’s future participation in FFBF programs and events including annual meetings, Field to the Hill, and Tallahassee Farm Bureau Days. “I am honored to have the opportunity to contribute to the establishment of what our Board hopes will be an increasingly popular and successful annual event,” he said.
During the Board’s December meeting a unanimous vote passed to award a micro-grant request to a local elementary school teacher to use towards purchase of materials for classroom and student personal safety including disinfectant sprays and wipes, hand sanitizer, gloves, and other personal protective equipment. The grant will be accompanied by an agricultural literacy program which will appropriately emphasize food-borne and other pathogens.
“The micro-grant is a small part of our organization’s larger, comprehensive effort to establish communication and a presence with local schools in order to reach local students,” he explained. “It is our goal to facilitate awareness of agriculture and increase agricultural literacy in a younger generation, support them in their academic endeavors, and foster their potential interests in future careers in the agricultural industry.”
Matt still calls the Naples area home since 1997, and is the father of two sons, Dylan (19) and Aidan (17). He has been a member of Grace Lutheran Church since 1999, currently serves as the Director of the church’s Board of Stewardship and is a member of the Church Council and Endowment Committee.
Matt still has Florida family in Brooksville and Center Hill as well as Ft. Myers and Jacksonville. He is a devoted fan of University of Florida athletics, and enjoys fishing whenever he has the opportunity.
He shared with us his favorite recipe, Fried Florida Redfish.
Fried Florida Redfish
Matt Stephenson-Smith, Collier County Farm Bureau
- Fresh Florida Redfish filets
- Milk or light buttermilk
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Black pepper
- Hot sauce of your choice
- Frying oil
- Bread crumbs, either plain, seasoned with seasonings above, Italian or seasoned Panko
Clean filets well, remove all bones and cut into chunks (larger than nuggets). If using plain breadcrumbs, create an egg mixture with eggs, milk, hot sauce and seasonings. Dip redfish into the marinade to generously cover the fish. Marinade for 12-24 hours.
Shake chunks in a large plastic food storage container with a tight-fitting lid containing a mixture of Bisquick and seasonings. Then, dip chunks once more in a whisked egg mixture before placing in a separate container with breadcrumbs. Shake well until the fish is coated thoroughly.
The chunks are then ready to be fried in the oil of your choice until golden brown and well drained to remove excess oil. You can even cook in air fryer, turning at least once halfway through.