From Farm to Capitol: Keith Truenow’s Political Roots Run Deep in Agriculture
Keith Truenow, founder of Lake Jems Farms in Mount Dora, Florida was elected to the House of Representatives for District 31 in November 2020. Truenow, a local farmer and rancher, now addresses agriculture issues from a seat at the state capital.
Born in Minnesota, Truenow grew up learning how to fish and drive a boat on the lake where his mother’s side of the family-owned a resort. His grandparents on his father’s side had a farm where they raised chickens, cattle and grew row crops. “They pretty much had everything, and I grew up in almost all parts of my life with agriculture,” Truenow said.
When he was 10 years old his parents decided to buy a chicken farm in Webster, Florida. “Moving to Florida was a big deal. It was an adventure. You had to hand feed the birds and handpick the eggs and it was a lot different than what we were used to in Minnesota. Automation wasn’t there at the farm we were at and eventually we built a new barn that housed a lot more chickens and it was all automated.”
Truenow said his parents sold their farm and moved to Leesburg, Florida in 1984. He was 15 years old and even though they had moved to town, he went back to work on a nearby muck farm that grew row crops. The owner Jack Welling had owned other farms in Zellwood, Florida and had connections to other muck farms. While Truenow was working there, Welling converted the farm and started growing turfgrass. “Through my high school years, I learned how to grow turfgrass. We grew Floratam and Raleigh and he named the farm Blue Ribbon Sod.”
At 17, Truenow went into the United States Air Force for four years when he decided college wasn’t in his plans. He had a lot of relatives serve the country, including an uncle who was a mechanic in the Air Force, which is what he ended up doing too.
“It was a great experience. A lot of things that we did at the farm, like fixing and building things, I did as a mechanic. It wasn’t too hard to accomplish what I needed to do,” he shared. He explained serving at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa was a highlight because both the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) are based there.
“That’s the headquarters of the command for the Middle East and South America. And General Norman Schwarzkopf’s office was across the fence from where I was working,” he said. “There were 22 active Generals on that base so there’s a lot of saluting going on. It was a great place to be, but my heart wasn’t there. It wasn’t what I wanted to do so I came back to work for Jack (Welling).”
In 1992, Truenow returned to work on a new farm Welling had been looking after for about a year that was owned by the Hurley family. While there, Truenow met a man named Ellis Wilkerson who was growing row crops across the street. After a few months of getting to know one another, Wilkerson told Truenow he was looking for a General Manager for his farm.
So, at 23-years-old, Truenow became the General Manager growing sweet corn in Zellwood at Ellis F. Wilkerson Farms. A short while later, the adjacent Hurley family’s farm came up for lease and Truenow told Wilkerson they should buy it and grow sweet corn and turfgrass. He agreed if Truenow would care for it, and they got a lease on the land for about seven years.
When Wilkerson passed away, Truenow bought his farm. “Then a lot of things changed in Zellwood. A lot of sweet corn went away and a lot of land got bought up by the government for water management. I started my own company in 1998. That’s when it became Lake Jem Farms,” he said.
Lake Jem Farms
Truenow started Lake Jem Farms with six employees and said he was fortunate to know a lot of customers and vendors from having been in the business for a while. By 2000, the company stopped growing sweet corn altogether. But it wasn’t long after that he decided turfgrass wasn’t enough to be profitable, so Truenow expanded to start offering customers delivery and installation services. “The company grew to 25 employees overnight and that’s about the time I found Sod Solutions and got into growing different varieties,” he said. “I was already part of the Florida Sod Growers Co-Op (now the Turfgrass Producers of Florida) when Arlen Jumper decided to retire and nominated me to get on the board. I stayed on the board for 19 years.”
He expanded Lake Jem Farms and leased different properties around town. He also expanded south to Sebring, Florida prior to the recession. “It’s been a happy long journey. We were involved with Sod Solutions and UF IFAS on all kinds of new varieties and stayed engaged.”
Truenow said he served on the Florida Sod Growers Co-Op board and related boards to give back. “We should all give back time so that we can ensure that our futures look better. We can help discover new varieties or come up with new ways, technology and science that helps us do a better job of growing grass but also taking care of the environment at the same time. I always thought that that was important in that role.”
He said when the great recession happened, Lake Jem Farms had to reduce their number of acres of turfgrass, so he got back into sweet corn for a few years. But that became difficult since no one else was producing corn nearby. In 2005, they got into the peat mining business, digging Florida peat for potting soil and blending. About seven years ago, Lake Jem Farms expanded into the sand business where they make blend sands for golf courses and ball fields and have their own renovation and maintenance teams that work on both.
During the early days he was the sole person running the business, but during the recession, Lake Jem Farms created a team that could help run the business without him overseeing every single matter of operation.
“We have diversified the business into a lot of different things during the last 10 years because of the recession,” Truenow said. “Between the main people at the farm and contractors, we probably employ about 200 people now.”
While Truenow has not been as involved in day-to-day operations since he became a state representative, he still oversees business development and things that are essential to the building blocks of the organization.
“It’s always great to see things grow. When you plant something and you get to harvest it, it’s always a great accomplishment,” Truenow said. He continued by saying he loves the diversity of the turfgrass industry and that every piece of property is different, so you have to figure out solutions to make everything work.
Florida House of Representatives
In 2017, Truenow sold part of his ownership of Lake Jem Farms so he could have the liberty to do other things. He’d been frequenting Tallahassee working with governmental agencies for years and has always been engaged in politics. He recalls some of the first things he went to the capital for were in the early 2000s for the Best Management Practices (BMP) program for turfgrass.
In 2020, he learned a representative was not going to seek re-election so that she could start a family. “It was an open seat and I was brainstorming with some friends trying to figure out who would be a good candidate. The fingers were pointing back at me, and I had a lot of good support around the state, so I decided to run,” he said.
Truenow was elected in November 2020 and is currently up for re-election this November.
“It’s really humbling when you stand up there and take the oath to uphold the Constitution. It kind of sinks in that you became a representative of the people in your district and of the people of Florida. So that was a great honor,” Truenow said.
Moving forward, he said it took a while to navigate how the process works as you get assigned to committees while you’re trying to plant your feet and see if you can be helpful.
Truenow said it was beneficial to him that his first year in office was when the pandemic was underway. “That sounds kind of strange to say that it was helpful, but no one could come to the capital. There were 24 Republicans and 17 Democrats that were elected brand new in 2020 and I got to know each one of them pretty well. Whereas if it was a regular year, that would not have happened. It allowed for more in-depth conversations to happen. We figured out who could help who and what experiences we all had to make better decisions. I think it was a team-building time period for all of us.”
He shared that the highlight of his first year in office would be running a bill called the Florida Wildlife Act, which preserves land throughout the state. “We spent $400 million doing it. As a first-year person, I ran a bill worth more than normal folks would do if they were there for 20 years. It was an honor to do it and I understood the bill really well because I’m a farmer.”
Another piece of legislation passed during 2020 legislation was the Right to Farm Bill. “That was monumental. As a whole, or part, we perpetuated Florida agriculture better than most states in the whole country. At the same time, we took monies we were receiving and put them to good use in trying to conserve what Florida is,” he said.
In March, Truenow helped in the passing of the Golf Course Best Management Practices Certification, also known as House Bill 967, which will go into effect on July 1, 2022 to protect the industry by educating applicators on proper fertilizer and water usage.
“Like any BMP, the importance of science and technology in helping us form solutions to everyday problems is important. This is a working document that we can change but also give guidance to all parties,” he said. “Essentially this is a blueprint that all municipalities and governments will go by so they can understand how a golf course is maintained and works so they don’t end up having multiple layers of regulation, we’ll have one common blueprint.”
Truenow said the state has already created similar bills for many commodities, so adding golf courses was not an anomaly, it was just the right thing to do. Now, they’re currently working on legislation similar to the BMP that would help municipalities with set rules and regulations for landscaping, irrigation and fertilizer use.
As for next steps, Truenow said he’s taking it one session at a time and seeing where things go. “Whatever I do, I want to be effective and work hard to promote agriculture and promote business and property rights and make Florida a better place all the way around.”
Truenow, who’s been in the industry since he was 17 said that it has taken a lot of hard work over the years. “Anybody who loves agriculture just has that instinctive drive to get things done. I love to work outdoors and it’s just life. It’s like any other business it gives me joy and has always been there for me and it’s been wonderful to be a part of,” he shared.
Truenow has always followed his heart. His wife Dodi is actually a Hurley, the same family who owned the farm across the street from Lake Jem Farms. “She’s been complimentary to me being in the House of Representatives. I think the common goals of protecting Florida while keeping agriculture alive is part of her core as well,” he said. “Her father has been very helpful to me in growing the business. He has a Masters in soil and fertilizers and actually started one of the first liquid fertilizer companies in the state of Florida. Heritage in agriculture for all of us is deeply rooted.”
The Truenows have two sons, Dylan (15) and Ashton (17). He said while people say being a representative is a part-time job, it’s more of a full-time job. But, Truenow said as his sons grow into young adults, their needs from him are different than when they were younger. Over the last two years, he’s spent a lot of time away from his family for events and functions as a representative. “I think I keep it grounded.”
Truenow said there have been good insights for him as a representative looking into how the government regulates and performs. “Being a part of that is important and I think they need to understand that from a firsthand view.”
“It just goes to show you that anyone can make a difference in the process. I think we as an industry have always been engaged. This is just a different level of engagement and I think it’s very important,” he said.
Truenow said it is vital for sod producers to participate a little more in science and technology. “We need to do what we can, even if it may be financially difficult. We face such difficulties every day anyway. But sometimes we take for granted someone who is going to take care of us and I think we need to make sure that the next generation is set up in the right way so that they too can enjoy agriculture into the future.”
He is hopeful sod producers will invest in science and technology since those things matter for how they produce their next crop. “That goes for varieties, the next technique or using materials in a different way, creating new materials to test diseases, how to apply materials. There are just so many things that we have to do to ensure we’re moving in the right direction.”
For information about Truenow, click here.
This article was written by Cecilia Brown.