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.