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Childhood in the fields leads to a future in produce -- and politics?

IMMOKALEE, FL -- One grandfather was a rancher. Another, as well as two uncles, owned citrus groves. His mother worked for Lykes Bros.

There was little doubt that Doug Miller would wind up in the family business.

"I was always on a tractor with my granddaddies, and I enjoyed it. Those were some of the happiest times of my life. It wasn't that I had to do it -- I liked it," Doug Miller recalled from his office at the Six L's Packing Co.'s potato- shipping facility, here.

"I thought about law enforcement for a little while" growing up in tiny Lorida, FL (near Sebring), Mr. Miller, 28, said. "And then, after high school, I thought I'd skip college and go straight into the family business. I went to work for my uncle's nursery business. I laid irrigation pipe all summer long in the hot sun. It didn't take me long to figure out I needed to get myself back in school."

Mr. Miller decided the halls of academe beat the heat of the orange groves. He headed for Tifton, GA, and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, bypassing mammoth farming factories like the nearby University of Florida -- despite the fact that he is a lifelong Gator fan -- for smaller class sizes and a more hands-on experience at tiny ABAC.

The only thing he missed at ABAC were Saturdays in Gainesville at Gator football games, a tradition his season-ticket holding grandfather started long before Mr. Miller was born.

Today, Mr. Miller and his new bride (Sarah, a UF grad he wed in March) use those same seats any Saturday his busy travel schedule allows.

Idyllic boyhood days spent aboard a tractor at one grandfather's ranch or the other's citrus grove meant that young Mr. Miller never had to search far afield for his calling. The only surprise has been the fact that he's spent his time working mostly in sales with tomatoes, melons and potatoes in his years with Six L's, one of the nation's larger providers of produce.

"I knew I always wanted to work in agriculture. I thought I wanted to be in citrus," Mr. Miller said.

A college internship with Lykes Bros. led to his first job out of school, overseeing a 2,500-acre orange grove. After eight months, looking for a more hands-on experience, he was ready to move on.

"They were good to me, but I saw the writing on the wall. I knew I didn't want to sit in the same place doing the same thing for 30 years," Mr. Miller said. In college, Mr. Miller had seen a flyer from Six L's that promised younger workers a chance to learn and grow.

"My granddad always told me it doesn't hurt to learn something new," Mr. Miller said. "I've worked on the farms, in the packinghouses, in shipping and sales. It makes you better. My granddad always told me to do something new every time you get a chance. You always take what you learn with you." So Mr. Miller decided to trade the familiar for a career with Six L's. He's never looked back.

He spent two years as a scout, "learning the basics of farming, the diseases, the pests, the stages of growth. I knew I didn't want to do that forever, but it was a good place to start," Mr. Miller said.

Slowdowns in summer gave him a chance to expand his scope and begin working the Six L's melon harvest. Two years of double-duty and he was ready for more. Named to run Six L's cherry and grape tomato harvest, he spent 10 months a year on the road, following the crop and living out of hotels in Virginia, South Carolina and Florida.

"I missed a lot of bachelor parties and fun times while I was off working," he said. Meanwhile, "I was spending a lot of time with the sales guys. They kind of took me under their wing. They taught me a lot. I wanted to be like them. They'd all done well."

So three years ago Mr. Miller asked for a transfer. Six L's gave him the opportunity to start in melon sales, then shift to tomatoes -- the company's top crop -- for 18 months before moving back to melons. This year, Six L's has added potatoes, 1,000 acres worth, to its lineup. That means Mr. Miller has added a new crop to his lineup, too.

"It's been real good," he said of the new addition. "It's an opportunity for me to start on the ground level with a new crop. It's something else new to get my hands on. The Lipman family has always given me the opportunity to grow and be in on new things, and I had the opportunity to step in a play a big role in this potato deal, which I wanted."

These days, Mr. Miller drives 90 minutes from his Sebring home to Immokalee each day from January to May, then switches over and follows the melon crop to Duette, an hour's drive from Sebring. Come June he packs up and heads to Beaufort, SC. By mid-July he's back in Sebring for a month brokering loads, then it's back to Beaufort for the September-October melon harvest.

He wraps up the year again making the commute from home to Duette before taking a short holiday break before the potato season begins anew in January.

Somehow, Mr. Miller finds time to serve on the Highlands County Farm Bureau Board and has a spot on the Florida Farm Bureau Vegetable Production Board. He takes those posts seriously, and hopes politics will play a role in his future.

He worries about the red tape involved, but "agriculture is what feeds my family, and I want to make sure it's well taken care of," Mr. Miller said. "I see myself getting more involved with that, making sure agriculture as a business is taken care of. I want to become more involved in keeping it alive and well and making sure agriculture's voice is heard at the political level."

There's very little downtime in Mr. Miller's schedule. He has no hobbies, unless you count commuting. He does like to watch college sports when he can, and hunting and fishing are favorites for which he has trouble finding time to pursue.

"With that schedule, you can't do a lot," he allowed. "Whenever I can spend time with family and friends, I'm happy. I've got a pretty tight-knit group of friends I grew up with. Whenever we get the chance, we head for the woods to do some hunting or the lake to do some fishing. Or we don't have to do anything -- we keep ourselves entertained. It doesn't take a whole lot to amuse us."