PLANT CITY — Steven Mathis built his strawberry farm bit by bit over 30 years.
He started after graduating from Plant City High School with 7 acres leased by his grandfather, Bennie Mathis. Mathis took over the land after his grandfather's death.
The 49-year-old owner of Mathis Farms now owns 90 acres and leases another 60. A few years ago he added blueberry shrubs to the mix.
Mathis' work and charitable efforts haven't gone unnoticed. The Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce Agri-Business Committee has named Mathis Agriculturist of the Year.
He was selected for his work and generosity, particularly with youth programs, said Jim Jeffries, an Agri-Business Committee member and president of the Florida Strawberry Festival board.
"He's what you'd call a self-made man. He's just quietly worked hard," Jeffries said. "He's a very genuine person."
Mathis will be honored alongside other award winners at next month's Salute to Agriculture Contact Breakfast on the festival grounds. The yearly breakfast is a who's who of local farmers and agricultural backers.
Along with Mathis, Emily Petrilli of Tomlin Middle School will be honored. She will be named the Ag Educator of the Year, and Wish Farms will be awarded as the Agri-Business of the Year. Jon Poppell, a longtime backer of agricultural youth programs, will be named Supporter of Youth in Agriculture.
Mathis said he was floored when committee chairwoman Debbie Simpson stopped by his Walden Lake home a few weeks ago to break the news. The winners receive plaques and bragging rights.
"It's a really big deal to me. I'm proud to get it," Mathis said. "It makes me feel like I've done something right in my career."
Mathis' career dates to 1982, after he graduated. His first strawberry crop came in the following year. But long before then the seed had been planted that Mathis wanted to be a farmer.
He was in the seventh grade working at an automotive repair business cleaning broken glass and running errands when he realized he'd rather be farming. His grandfather, who worked a farm part time, passed on his work ethic and love of farming to Mathis.
"The main thing he said was to work hard. You have to work at it. Nothing will happen on its own," he said. "Farming is very challenging, and we've gone through some hard times along with the good."
The reward is seeing a bountiful harvest, he said.
"It's seeing something that you put your hard work into and getting something out of it," Mathis said.
After 30 years, Mathis has witnessed many changes in strawberry farming, from pesticide use to new strategies to tackle freezes. Even the fruit has changed, becoming more adapted to Florida's climate so planting seasons could move up the calendar.
Among the changes, Mathis copes with freezes by using blankets to safeguard his fruit and cut down on well-water pumping to spray fields, which experts link to sinkholes.
He uses blankets for 25 percent of his crop. The practice can be costly and tricky, especially on windy nights.
Another change is using safer pesticides.
"The times we're in now, that's what everybody is looking at," Mathis said.
Mathis is married and has a grown son, Stevie, and a daughter, Haylee, in high school in Lakeland.
His daughter hasn't decided whether to pursue farming, but with Mathis' son studying agri-business at Hillsborough Community College, it's likely another Mathis generation will continue to farm.
"He seems to like it," he said. "He likes everything about it in general. When you see that first crop, it can be very rewarding."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.