Editor's note: A special thanks to Dr. Monica Ozores-Hampton at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center for coordinating The Immokalee Report, of which the article below is part.
The University of Florida’s Southwest Florida Research and Education Center is located just north of Immokalee and at the center of a vibrant agricultural community. Southwest Florida encompasses five counties: Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades.
Southwest Florida citrus growers produce 25 percent of the state’s sweet orange crop, whereas the region’s vegetable growers supply nearly 80 percent of the tomatoes and other fresh vegetables to the U.S. Northeastern winter markets.
Together with cattle, sugarcane and ornamental plant operations, southwest Florida agriculture generates more than $1.3 billion in farm sales annually. The state’s largest citrus processing and sugar refining facilities are located within Southwest Florida as well.
When the full scope of economic impacts are considered—crops, food processing, agricultural supply and service companies, as well as natural resource base industries—more than $6.2 billion of total annual economic activity statewide is connected to Southwest Florida agriculture.
The center’s rich history
The SWFREC has a rich history, serving not only Southwest Florida growers but also initiating new research and production programs that have advanced agriculture throughout the state. The center initially was established in 1955 as the South Florida Field Research Station on 320 acres of land donated jointly by Alico Inc. and Barron Collier Co.
Headed by Dr. Paul Everett, the center pioneered research on fruiting vegetables, identifying nutritional requirements of tomatoes, watermelons, squash and sweet pepper. Researchers there also developed the use of plastic mulch, drip irrigation and other advanced technologies that have become staples of specialty crop production in the region.
In the early 1980s, agricultural leaders organized into the South Florida Agricultural Council, which petitioned the state legislature to authorize public monies to expand the field station into a full-fledged research and education center.
New buildings, labs and greenhouses were constructed to support 12 academic programs. Scientists in plant pathology, entomology, soil science, horticulture, irrigation engineering, range science, animal science and economics addressed production challenges of citrus, vegetable, cattle and sugarcane. Water quality and wildlife science were included to address important overlapping issues between agricultural production and environmental quality.
In recent years, scientists at SWFREC have been in the forefront of developing:
• Best Management Practices – BMPs -- to enhance water quality;
• Water farming programs to create storage capacity and wildlife habitat;
• The Florida Master Naturalist educational program’
• Management strategies and biological control of invasive plants, such as tropical soda apple;
• Diagnostic and management protocols for serious plant diseases, such as citrus greening, tomato yellow leaf curl virus and watermelon vine decline’
• Mechanical harvesting systems for juice oranges;
• Area-wide citrus health management areas to control Asian citrus psyllids;
• Nutritional and horticultural treatments to sustain production from greening infected citrus trees;
• Peaches and blueberries as alternative specialty crops in Southwest Florida; and
• Farm worker safety and compliance training workshops.
Center’s future returns to stakeholders
Unfortunately, IFAS has experienced a series of budget reductions and inflationary pressures through the past 10 to 15 years that have eroded the capacity to meet the research, teaching and Extension needs of the agricultural interests in Southwest Florida.
In particular, the original 12 faculty programs have been reduced by attrition to only seven. Perhaps more significantly, leadership has been compromised by a series of interim center director appointments. For the past 13 years, SWFREC has been without a center director solely dedicated to advancing the University of Florida’s land-grant mission in Southwest Florida.
On Oct. 2, 2013, a previously announced downgrade of SWFREC to an “Extension and Demonstration area” was rescinded by Jack Payne, University of Florida senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. At the time, he announced that despite funding issues, SWFREC would continue to conduct research in response to agricultural and natural resource issues.
Payne declared that he was “pleased with the response from growers who committed to help UF/IFAS maintain and enhance the level of excellence from SWFREC which the community deserves.”
Thus, the future of the center is once again in the hands of the stakeholders and their elected representatives, together with a commitment from the rest of the faculty and staff and me to serve their research and education needs to the best of our ability.
Dr. Phil Stansly, a professor of entomology, is interim director of the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. He may be reached at email@example.com.