Simmons Farms was founded in 1977. At the time, Runkles’ father had taken a break from farming with his dad, but he realized agriculture was in his blood. So he, his wife and his dad founded the operation near Plant City and planted their first crop of strawberries. “The first strawberry crop was picked the year I was born,” said Runkles.
“We started with strawberries and we had about 30 acres that first year. Since then we’ve grown to about 135,” she added.
Runkles is the oldest of six children, and she and a brother both work on the farm. “The others are still too young, but hopefully as time goes by we’ll all work together,” she said.
Runkles handles all of the financial responsibilities, including payroll and accounts payable. She also serves as Simmons Farms’ food safety director. “I handle all of our food safety compliance, setting up procedures and audits, and communicating with buyers if they have questions,” she said.
In addition, Runkles has her own food safety consulting business. “I help the smaller farmers prepare for their audits. Some of these people can’t afford a full-time person who can keep up with the changing rules and what’s going through the Legislature, so I’m there to help,” she said. “I set their books up, walk them through the audit, and then arrange ongoing training so that they stay up on the standards required to keep our food safe.”
Simmons Farms grows strawberries and blueberries, and in the spring they grow watermelons. They also grow some vegetables as a filler crop. They sell to FFVA producer member Wish Farms.
A huge hurdle the farm has successfully handled is labor. “In the past, we’ve had very bad luck with workers to the point where berries simply didn’t get picked. Now we’ve switched to the H-2A system and so far we’ve had very good luck with it,” she said. “A few years ago we had people who would come to work, stay a few hours and leave. Farming is a sunup-to-sundown business, and we need dependable people who actually want to work. That’s we have now. This year we had all of our berries planted in record time.”
Runkles enjoys working with family the most. “We get along really well, and we have fun together. Plus, you get to work as a family putting a product on the table that’s feeding America,” she said.
“I also like to educate people as to where their food comes from. So many people think that food just magically appears. I like to talk about how American farms are in competition with other countries and the challenges that come with that,” she added.
Runkles is enthusiastic about the Emerging Leader Program. “I only met the other class members at the convention, but already it’s very enlightening,” she said. “I never realized how many facets there are to agriculture. You see your side and what you put into it, but there’s so much to learn. The other class members have so much knowledge. Some of them are pretty young and they already have so much information to share. I just want to get to know them and learn from the resources presented so that I can do my part to help make agriculture thrive,” she said.
In addition to working on the farm and in her consulting business, Runkles and her family are very involved with the First Baptist Church of Plant City. “We all do our part,” Runkles said. “I teach a sewing class on Sunday nights to four or five middle and high school students. We are making dresses and shorts to send to an orphanage in Haiti. We sent 100 dresses last year, and we’re just starting the shorts for the boys.”
And if that wasn’t enough to stay busy, she and her husband have three daughters, ages 12, 10 and 5. All three are budding cheerleaders, and Runkles coaches the youngest and her classmates. They cheer at Grace Christian school.
Runkles and her husband also like to travel, spending their valuable spare time at the beach or the mountains.
Read more about Simmons Farms on the growers section of the Wish Farms website here.