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From behind a badge to behind a desk

PLANT CITY, FL -- He grew up working on an avocado farm in Homestead, FL, and planned to pursue an industrial engineering degree at the University of Florida, while his father hoped he would follow along in the family accounting business.

But instead, J.R. Pierce became a police officer.

As a kid growing up in Homestead, Mr. Pierce worked odd jobs in local nurseries and spent summers working in the fields at a family friend's avocado farm. Meanwhile, his father, a certified public accountant, did taxes for local farmers and hoped his son would follow the same path.

"I'm good with numbers, but I'm a big-picture person," said Mr. Pierce, 27. "There was no way I could do a job where if I got a 'one' or a 'zero' in the wrong place, somebody would wind up going to jail."

So instead he headed for the University of Florida "with the idea of getting a degree in industrial engineering" until a roommate suggested he consider agricultural engineering based on his background and the fact that class sizes were smaller.

"Everything in that degree looked a lot more fun and interesting - it was all applied," said Mr. Pierce, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in agriculture operations management, ready to begin a farming-related career. In college, he spent summers working at a packinghouse in North Carolina. Sales intrigued him, but he didn't like the idea of following a crop around from town to town and state to state as seasons progressed. In fact, he very much liked the idea of settling down in one place, becoming part of a community and starting a family with his wife, Elizabeth, whom he had met at church while both were students at the University of Florida.

Mrs. Pierce landed a job teaching at the high school in her hometown, Plant City, Florida's strawberry capital. No jobs relating to his degree were available, so Mr. Pierce started looking for a different career. His brother-in-law was a deputy for the local sheriff's department and there was an opening, so Mr. Pierce passed the tests and donned the badge.

"It wasn't anything like what you see on TV on 'Cops,'" Mr. Pierce said. "It was the same old thing time and time again: someone would get drunk, there'd be a domestic disturbance -- it got old, it got frustrating, it got depressing. I'm glad I did it because I learned a lot, but I definitely didn't want to be in it for the rest of my life."

Mr. Pierce was at a crossroads. Neither he nor his wife wanted to leave Plant City, but his career was stalled.

Enter serendipity.

When Plant City's Astin Strawberry Exchange, one of the state's larger growers and shippers, published an advertisement for a salesman, "I was really ready to jump," Mr. Pierce said. "I called, they said come on in, there was a 15- minute interview, they told me if I was crazy enough to want to work that hard, they'd be willing to let me."

Two years later, Mr. Pierce is the number two salesman at Astin, behind only his boss and mentor Shawn Pollard (the man who hired him), and he serves as the company's food-safety director.

"I like my work. It's very challenging," Mr. Pierce said. "It gives me a chance to build on my degree and have connections with the industry. The [strawberry] season gets crazy -- March is full throttle -- but you've got a lot of flexibility the rest of the year."

Mr. Pierce finds plenty of ways to fill his off-time. He and Elizabeth recently purchased a home - and five acres of land that demand constant attention - near her parents and other siblings. These days the only bad guys he deals with are the monsters in the closet at bedtime for two-year-old son Colton (who has a new brother or sister due in February).

"I'm not a partier," Mr. Pierce admitted. "I'm pretty much the stay-home- and-relax type. Maybe a hunting or fishing trip now and then. We do a lot with people from our church [First Baptist Church of Plant City] barbecues, picnics. It's about the only thing that keeps me sane during the season. Sunday morning is the only time I take off."

Being a family man has seriously cut into one pursuit Mr. Pierce once enjoyed greatly, and looks forward to taking up again.

"When I do get some time, I like to go hunting, mostly deer, with bow, black powder or rifle," he said. "I'm not one of those guys who goes out and shoots everything I see. Ninety percent of the time, I don't shoot anything. My wife says, 'Why do you go?' Because I'm out in the woods, the phone's not ringing, it's nice. I used to go about 15 times a year, now I'm lucky to get to go once or twice."

As for the future, "I'd like to maybe have some ownership in something, my own farm or something," Mr. Pierce said. "I don't mind being an employee, but I'd like to have something to call my own one day. I'm in no rush -- I've got plenty of time. They treat me extremely well here. Shawn [Pollard] is not only the best salesman I've ever met, he's the best teacher I've ever had. I'm still learning. I've got a lot on my plate doing my job here."