A 30-year ag teacher practiced what he preached. His wholesale plant business now ships all over the Southeast.
By JANET ZINK
Published July 4, 2003
LITHIA - They say those who can, do, and those who can't, teach.
Well, Douglas Holmberg can, he does and he taught for 30 years at Horace Mann Middle School.
Holmberg now presides over a multimillion-dollar wholesale plant business that includes more than 1,000 acres and a fleet of 20 trucks that ship ornamentals, vegetables, fruit and trees to retailers throughout the southeastern United States.
He built the operation while teaching agriculture classes for Hillsborough County.
Holmberg came to Tampa more than 40 years ago from Minnesota with $90 in his pocket and a suitcase in his hand.
He comes from a long line of farmers. His great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from Sweden to Minnesota, where he raised corn, alfalfa, soybeans and cattle. His grandfather and father carried on that tradition. Holmberg's brother grows corn, beans and apples in Minnesota.
Holmberg earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture and education from South Dakota State University and a master's degree in agriculture and education from the University of Florida.
After graduating, he worked as a sales representative for Northern Biochemical Corp., a company that specialized in feed additives. Northern Biochemical transferred him to Tampa, but the venture proved unsuccessful after three months and Holmberg accept a job teaching vocational agriculture.
"When I left Minnesota, there were patches of ice on the air strip," he remembers. It was May 2. When he got off the plane in Tampa, the thermometer read 78 degrees.
"My thought was, "Wow, I wonder if I'll ever go back.' "
He lived modestly and used savings from his teacher's salary to buy 2.25 acres in 1962 in Valrico, where he planted orange trees.
"I didn't even know what a citrus tree looked like," he said.
He worked the land with a hoe, a rake and a shovel, he said. He reinvested profits and continued to buy farmland.
In 1984, he made a down payment on a 200-acre orange grove on Sydney Road but was forced to burn it in 1985 to fight an outbreak of citrus canker.
On land across the street from that property, he grows strawberries, but he sold 55 acres to Pulte Homes.
In 1988, Holmberg bought the 560 acres in Lithia that today comprises the bulk of Holmberg Farms Inc. There he grows hundreds of varieties of plants including palms, ixoras, viburnum, caladium, roses, jasmine, crepe myrtle, bottle brush trees, oleander, oaks, azaleas and 30 types of citrus.
Holmberg also owns 320 acres of timberland in Minnesota, 180 acres on Sydney-Washer Road where he raises tangerines, horses and cattle, and 207 acres on Sydney and Gallagher roads where he raises cattle.
He keeps his enterprise cutting-edge with his own innovations. Holmberg holds more than a dozen patents. Among other things, he invented a ventilated greenhouse, a method for turning trees into fence posts, propagation trays with angled cups that facilitate drainage and portable nursery benches.
In 1999, he was named the Lancaster/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year.
Farming, Holmberg said, pays his bills, and he's passionate about cultivating the earth.
But, he said, some of his life's greatest joys have come from nurturing young minds.
"I loved teaching," he said, adding that if the farm didn't require so much of his attention, he'd still be doing it.
"It was a surprise every day," he said.
In the early 1970s, he and his students grew and sold ornamental plants to fund construction of a new classroom.
Although Holmberg is worth millions, he insists he didn't really work most days. "I didn't have to," he said. "Because I loved what I was doing."