Growing from the Ground Up: The Remarkable Journey of Star Turf Farms
Star Turf Farms is a well-recognized sod business in Florida known for its superior quality and longtime farming operations established across the region. What started as a 600-acre cattle-grazing farm has now grown to 30,000 acres. The dedication behind this turfgrass operation and the people running the business are a testament to their success.
Star Ranch Enterprises Inc. was founded by a Poland native, Noel Shapiro and his brother Jaime Shapiro. Noel was born in 1927 but his family moved to Cuba in 1936 to escape as the Nazi regime started taking hold of their homeland. Noel went on and established his life in Cuba. He got married and started his family and everything was going well until dictatorship came into play. Noel fled the country with his family for the United States in 1959.
His grandson and the current owner of Star Turf Farms, Justin Sobie, shared that his grandfather came here without knowing the language and was in need of a job. Noel found his way by getting involved at a hardware business in Hollywood, FL which he eventually purchased.
“Little by little, through hard work, determination and the power of hope he got out of the hole he was in and started building condos, homes and apartments parallel to working in the hardware business,” Sobie said. “And then came his love for the land. He started investing in agriculture which then led to him finding his love for the sod business. His visionary mentality and successful business acumen was beginning to define the true American dream.”
When he left the construction business, Noel purchased a few hundred acres of land and bought registered Brahman cattle, beginning Star Ranch Enterprises Inc. in 1969, which would later expand to also include Star Farms Corp. and Star Turf Farms. The fields had old Florida St. Augustinegrass that he let the cattle graze on until he would move them on the land so he could cut the grass. Noel sold sod for three-quarters of a penny per square foot.
They started with growing sod and over time added sugar cane, citrus and row crops. Sobie explained that it’s important they have the luxury to be a diversified business. “My grandfather always said don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. We are fortunate enough to have the land mass to expand different types of crops, commodities, rock and peat mine operations.”
Star grew a lot of citrus from the 1990s until the early 2000s, which was also around the same time the market peaked. Now they’re fortunate to have converted most of their citrus farms in Martin County to sugar cane and row crops before the citrus market started to decline.
The Leadership of Richard Burns
In 1989, Star Turf Farms’ current Senior Vice President and General Manager, Richard Burns, started working for Noel when the farm had grown to 1,500 acres of land, consisting of two farms with a little bit of sod growing. At that time, Star Turf Farms owned the land and grew the product, but they would contract the work to cut, sell and install it.
Fortunately, Burns came to Star with robust knowledge of the turfgrass industry. When he graduated high school from Glades Day School in 1981, he went on to attend Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia. Then, he returned to Belle Glade in 1983 and started working for Mace Sod, which his longtime acquaintance, Robert Mace, owned. Burns was a hard worker and he advanced quickly from an intern to farm manager at Mace Sod, where he oversaw 14,000 acres of St. Augustine. “It was big volume, big numbers. It was the good old days,” he said.
He’s seen different areas in the state fluctuate in sod production over the duration of his career. He anticipates the Tampa and Fairmont area produces the highest volume of sod today. “There were probably 20,000 acres of St. Augustine sod in the Glades back then and there’s not near that many anymore. I would say it’s at least cut in half in that area now. There are a lot of smaller farms that have popped up across the state and that can add up to a lot of acres. There’s a lot of competition.”
He worked at Mace until they sold out in 1988 and then he started helping Noel at Star shortly after. Sobie explained that Burns has been a tremendous asset to their family and their business since he came on board in 1989. “My grandfather always told me that and it’s true. Ever since my grandfather started slowing down, Richard has been a mentor to me and has taught me a lot about the sod business, which he has been in for almost his whole life.”
Burns has been married to his wife, Cheryl, for 37 years and enjoys his career in the turfgrass industry. Their son, Coulter, just graduated from Auburn University with an MBA. His favorite part of his job is getting up every morning and getting to do something he enjoys while seeing something new every day. He spends most of his days driving between their farms that span across five counties, staying very busy. “It’s hard work and I’m very hands-on. I don’t think we would be where we’re at by not being that way.”
Sobie said Star would not have grown from a pioneer turf farm in Florida to the large operation it is today without the good, honest people they surround themselves with. “There’s no way we would have made it to 30,000 acres without the help of Richard Burns and the entire team we have put in place to help lead our business. It’s taken a lot of dedication and hard work to make this growth possible. From our farm managers to our field labor, our office personnel and our dedicated executive team, everyone truly makes a difference in defining our success.”
Burns explained the farm was growing from day one but they started moving the acres forward in 1989. “By 2000, we were heavily into the sod business and the past 23 years have been full steam picking up different properties and developments and growing every year that we could,” Burns said.
Growing roughly 6,000 acres of turfgrass, they’re the largest grower in the state of Florida. “We have been for a long time and we strive for quality with no exception. That’s something I’ve instilled in myself since day one. We have to have good quality,” Burns said.
Sobie agreed saying his grandfather always instilled in him, “If you give the land what it needs it will produce for you what you want, however, you may not cut any corners if your end goal is to be successful.” He said they put everything back into the farm to ensure the quality is maintained.
Star Turf Farms produces over 5,000 acres of St. Augustine in a given year, depending on sugar cane prices. Burns explained again this is why it’s important to have diversification of crops and hopes that the sod and sugar cane markets stay as good as they’re going right now.
“We’ve been growing bermudagrasses since 2000, and now we’re heavily in it. We’ve got big plans now that we’re out in front,” he said.
Just three years ago, Star Turf Farms made a major adjustment as they decided to start their own harvesting and installation operations. “Getting into these new varieties and all these new names of grass types, we have to expose ourselves and show that we are the farmer, we are the landowners and we are the ones producing this grass and in some cases installing it,” Sobie said. “We’re changing the way we are viewed in the industry by wearing one hat that is vertically integrated from the farm to the home or golf course. We’re one team behind this from start to finish.”
Burns explained that they still use some of the same contractors they’ve worked with for 25 years, but they hired General Manager, Jonathan Lallement three years ago. He shared that Lallement has been a tremendous asset for the expansion of the company to oversee their own sales, harvesting and installations, which are mainly in Southwest Florida, in Lee and Collier Counties.
Simultaneously to vertically integrating the business, they’ve also increased the number of turfgrass varieties being grown to include more golf grasses to take advantage of where their regional market is focused right now. “We’ve been successful so far and I think things are bright for the future,” Burns said. Sobie agreed, sharing his excitement for expanding their business to the next level by getting into the golf course grass industry.
Currently, Star Turf Farms produces 12 different turfgrass varieties, including Celebration® Bermudagrass, Celebration Hybrid™ Bermudagrass, NorthBridge® Bermudagrass, CitraZoy® Zoysiagrass, CitraBlue® St. Augustinegrass, EMPIRE® Zoysiagrass and Palmetto® St. Augustinegrass.
When it comes to the latest releases, Burns said Celebration Hybrid looks very promising in the golf realm, CitraBlue is growing a lot and CitraZoy is still in expansion mode across the state.
On March 21, Star Turf Farms held its first field day event at the farm to showcase all of these varieties. Sobie and Burns explained the business has always been one to fly under the radar, but now they’re going to start advertising what they do in a big way. They look forward to continuing their relationships with sports, golf and landscape professionals by hosting more of these events in the future.
“The field day was a success and the weather was perfect. We were glad so many people could make it out to the farm,” Burns said.
Burns said there is a huge need for turfgrass across the state right now and they do their best to keep up with demands. They also have to work with various agencies for regulations and expectations, especially in regard to adversity with water to plan for valid solutions moving forward.
Sobie’s aspirations for Star Turf Farms would be to create more value for the product they’re selling, whether it be different turfgrass varieties, soil types or other ways they maintain what they produce. He also plans to continue his grandfather’s goals for the business by continuing to expand while maintaining renowned quality.
“My grandfather taught me a lot and we didn’t argue much. When people hear about family businesses, this one was a special one. We were able to bond in and out of the workplace and expand the business. I would say in the last 10 years we have acquired close to 10,000 acres of land,” Sobie shared.
He looks forward to moving the business forward in honor of everything Noel did to grow Star Turf Farms into what it is today. Noel passed away just last year at the age of 95.
Sobie is the only family member working for Star Turf Farms and shared that he had a special relationship with his grandfather and he took him under his wings at a young age. “What a role model he was to me. I enjoyed learning from him, being with him, having meetings with him, and buying and selling land together. He always reminded me that this is the best country in the world. We just had a special bond that continues. I learned the business from him and now I’m continuing my grandfather’s legacy.”
Learn more about Star Turf Farms here.
This article was written by Cecilia Brown.