LAKE PLACID — Shaun O’Brien, farm manager at Duda Sod’s Lake Placid farm, will retire after 42 years of working for the company. Duda Sod is a division of Duda & Sons, Inc. (DUDA) and O’Brien has overseen their largest sod location for the past 12 years.
“I’m thankful to the Duda family, DUDA is a family-owned business in its fifth generation of ownership. They’ve given me the opportunity to raise my family comfortably and employed me for 42 years and I’m grateful for all of the opportunities they’ve given me,” O’Brien said.
Although he was born in Long Island, New York, in 1967 he moved to Sanford when he was 12 years old and never left the Sunshine State. He grew up with three brothers and went to school in Seminole County. After high school, O’Brien attended Seminole Junior College (now Seminole Community College) for two years before deciding to go work for a railroad company based in Sanford. While working there, O’Brien married his high school sweetheart, Marcy and the two started their family.
O’Brien admits he came to Duda Sod in an unusual way. Marcy was a bank teller at Flagship Bank, now Truist Bank, and her boss was the vice president. This woman’s husband was vice president of human resources at DUDA. Since she had knowledge that O’Brien was looking for a change due to issues going on with the railroad company, she told Marcy to encourage him to check out the open positions at DUDA.
Due to his frustrations with his current employer, O’Brien went to Oviedo, Florida the very next day and walked into the DUDA home office. “On Nov. 1, 1980 they hired me and the rest is history. Forty-two years later and now I’m retiring from DUDA,” he said.
He has worked at several of the company’s locations, continually climbing the ladder as time went on. Three months into his job at DUDA, he was promoted to supervisor of the Oviedo location. Several months later he was promoted to superintendent of the sod operation at their Zellwood farm where they also grew vegetables.
“From there I was promoted again to assistant farm manager of our Fort Lonesome location. Then I was promoted to a farm manager there before I took a transfer during some personnel changes to take over the Lake Placid operation. I’ve been here managing our largest sod location within the DUDA organization for the last 12 years,” he said.
He said they grow 1,950 acres of turfgrass at the Lake Placid location. “It’s challenging only because it’s the largest location I’ve managed for the company. But, it was also rewarding with larger crews being a bigger capacity farm with more people. I went from managing 20 people to as many as 45 people at the Lake Placid location, growing different varieties of grass than I’d been accustomed to at some of the other locations that I managed,” O’Brien shared.
Day on the Farm
O’Brien said as a grower, it’s very rewarding to see a crop from start to finish. He said planting, growing, harvesting and collecting the money for a product makes it a complete responsibility. “Unlike citrus or vegetables where someone else harvests it, it’s unique being the manager of a sod location where you see it from start to finish and then that process starts all over again,” he said.
The Lake Placid farm location grows several of Sod Solutions proprietary turfgrass varieties including EMPIRE® Zoysia, CitraBlue® St. Augustine and most recently they planted six acres of CitraZoy™ Zoysiagrass.
O’Brien explained they’ve always been in the zoysia market, but that they’re looking forward to growing CitraZoy. “We’re excited about all of the good characteristics it has, like disease tolerance and its low growth habit,” he said. “That’s one of the good things about being in the turfgrass industry. Every few years there’s a new innovation or new variety that comes out. I’ve seen some failures but think this one is going to be very successful.”
For the past four years, O’Brien has served on the Board of Directors for the Turfgrass Producers of Florida (TPF), a not-for-profit association representing sod growers statewide since 1989. O’Brien stepped down from the TPF board at their last meeting and another employee from Duda Sod filled his spot.
“It’s been rewarding working with the University of Florida on new releases, working with Sod Solutions on new varieties and just working to improve the overall business and health of the turf industry,” he said. “We try to stay on the forefront of innovation whether it be in varieties, cultural practices or harvesting practices. Just being right there at the cutting edge has been very rewarding. I try to make good sound decisions not just for the company I work for, but for the industry as a whole.”
He also served on the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s Agricultural and Green Industry Advisory Committee (AGIAC) for 10 years. O’Brien said the AGIAC held quarterly meetings to get the board member’s opinions on projects going on within the water district and they served as a sounding board to offer feedback or suggestions.
In the mid-1980s, he also served on the advisory board for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) extension offices for Seminole County and Orange County.
Over his career, O’Brien said the turfgrass industry has changed in many ways. He remembers doing company budgets with paper, pencils and erasers but now it’s all handled on computer systems. He also said technology has significantly changed their equipment, from mowers to precision-controlled spray carts to GPS-tracked sod harvesters.
“The efficiencies are more unbelievable than they were 40 years ago. I remember my first job at Oviedo. We had spot sprayers in our sod field that used to be done with a 3-gallon spray bottle that employees would carry and walk through the field. Now we’ve got John Deere gators that we ride through with 30-50 gallon tanks on the back. It’s just so much different than it was in the beginning,” he said.
O’Brien’s said that his advice to future generations in the turfgrass industry would be to get out of the truck and walk around with your shadow looking at your fields. “Windshield farming will not cut it. You’ve gotta get out of the truck and walk fields every day. Your grass will tell you what it needs by looking at it and just by paying close attention to the field itself,” he said.
He also added that when employees and coworkers see you do that, they’ll see you are taking an active role in the production of the crop. He said the time, effort and hours he put into his job are the reason he progressed over time at Duda from one farm to another, all while taking on more responsibilities.
O’Brien said upon his retirement from Duda Sod this month Christopher Johnson will assume most growing responsibilities at the Lake Placid location. He said he and Johnson have worked together, and he’s soaking in as much information as he can before O’Brien’s last day.
Family and Future
O’Brien said the growth of his career would not have been possible without the love and support from his wife. “I’m one of those guys that makes the first pot of coffee in the morning and I’m the one who locks up the gate in the evenings. So I sometimes spent 13-hour days or longer at the farm while my wife was a great support, going to PTA meetings, taking the kids to ball practice and doing all that extracurricular stuff after school. I’ve always had great support and that’s why I was so successful,” he said.
They have three sons; Scott, Joshua and Tyler as well as five grandchildren. Scott lives in Lawrenceville, GA with three grandchildren and the other two live in Port St. Lucie.
In retirement, O’Brien said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his grandkids and participating in more activities than he already does. He is really excited to be available to pick up his grandchildren from school when needed and can’t wait to spend more time at the beach house he and Marcy recently bought in New Smyrna Beach.
He is also incredibly proud of Marcy’s hard work in a profession that she loves too, as a doctor of audiology. He said she plans to continue working at Coastal ENT in Port St. Lucie for a few more years before she retires.
O’Brien enjoys hunting, fishing, walks on the beach and is starting to get into photography of birds. “I love trying to identify different birds whether it be at the beach or in my backyard. That’s one thing I’m going to miss in my job, I’ve always had the blessing of working outside and seeing nature. I’ve seen all kinds of critters, wildlife and some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets on the farm,” he reflected. “That’s one thing I’ll miss the most - just being hands-on with nature and coming in contact with all of that and enjoying the sun coming up over the horizon. I had a lot of awesome days and awesome evenings at the farm.”
DUDA extends beyond its four sod farming locations. The diversified land company also produces sugarcane, cattle, citrus and vegetables and operates a community development and home-building business. For more information about the sod operations, visit http://www.duda-sod.com.
Sod Solutions has helped successfully develop and release to the market over 20 different turfgrass varieties over the past 28 years including Palmetto and CitraBlue, St. Augustine, EMPIREⓇ and Innovation, Zoysia and Celebratio, Latitude 36 and NorthBridge Bermudagrass. The company is based in the Charleston, SC area.
This article was written by Sod Solutions Media & Content Manager, Cecilia Brown.