Name: Noel Shapiro Title: President, Star Ranch Enterprises Inc. and Star Farms Corporation Location: Belle Glade, FL (pop. 16,739)
Claim to Fame: Russian-European-Cuban-American
Highlights: He embodies "The Great American Success Story"
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Noel Shapiro's family has seen their share of ruthless dictators.
As a young boy, Noel and his family fled Poland over fears of an invasion from Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. This came just one generation after the Shapiros left Russia when Vladimir Lenin took control.
As luck would have it, Noel, his parents and siblings landed in Cuba—a temporary home they would, again, leave as Fidel Castro came into power.
"We didn't have two nickels to rub together, just the lint in our pockets," laughed Shapiro, recalling his family's early struggles after they arrived in Miami in 1960. "With the influx of immigrants, we were all competing for jobs and everyone had a difficult time making ends meet."
But he was thrilled with the freedom and opportunity America offered, and it didn't take Noel, now in his 30's, long to prosper in his new home.
After years of managing a successful hardware business in neighboring Hollywood, Fla., he expanded into real estate and soon into his first love, agriculture.
"Farming was engrained in me as a child; I always liked it," said Shapiro. "So I took the first chance I had to by land for myself."
Unfortunately, the cattle Noel acquired to populate his land weren't healthy. He was losing money fast and he was soon in jeopardy of losing the dream he worked so hard to build.
"My family has had to start over so many times, I just didn't have it in me again," he said. "Failure was simply not an option. So I said, 'okay, the cattle ranch didn't worked out, but the land is valuable; I can get out of this mess.'"
He sought the advice of a veterinarian he had employed to look after his cattle. The friend suggested citrus and another crop popular to the region, sugarcane.
The gamble paid off. Today, Shapiro owns and operates a 13,000-acre sugarcane, sod, and citrus farm. He has 50 employees, a mix of family and friends, who he credits with helping him become a successful farmer and businessman.
He went on to join the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, a farmer-owned sugar business that jointly owns the well-known Domino brand of sugar. At present, Shapiro serves as a board member for the cooperative.
Despite his success, Noel still worries about the future. "I've learned to never get too comfortable," he explained.
And he says one of the biggest challenges he's facing today is the public's current perception of U.S. agriculture, and the policy pressures that public scorn can bring.
"I have a lot of respect for this country and those who lead it, but if we put the agriculture industry in jeopardy, we're putting this entire nation in jeopardy," Shapiro cautions. "We shouldn't be wheeling and dealing our food supply. We contribute a heck of a lot to this country's bottom line, and we provide jobs."
If farm policies continue to come under attack and are ultimately weakened, Shapiro fears America would essentially be giving other countries control of our food supply, and that he says, is a recipe for disaster.
"Widespread hunger after World War II and the pain felt by the Cuban people today show just how important a healthy, domestic farming sector is to a nation's health," he said.
Always the optimist, Shapiro acknowledges that while these are difficult times for American farmers, but he has faith in the American people.
"Having started from the bottom, I know that my life is good compared to what I've gone through in the past," he said. "Sure, I get frustrated, I whine, and then I remember that no other country will allow me the opportunity that America has allowed me. Not one."
For Shapiro, a Russian-European-Cuban-American, America is where he chooses to call home. Let's hope that America will show Noel Shapiro, and the rest of its farmers, the same type of gratitude.