Florida Ag Industry Called To Action

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When word leaked that the University of Florida’s president Bernie Machen allegedly made negative comments regarding Florida agriculture and future funding of the school’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (IFAS), to say there was a tsunami of a response would be an understatement. John Hoblick, president of the Florida Farm Bureau (FFB), said he hadn’t seen anything like it in a long time.

“Not since the proposed penny-per-pound tax on sugar have I seen industry leaders so united in their agitation,” says Hoblick, adding the agitation was brought on, “as much by the rumors that some legislators and administrators have said the industry was dying as by the as-yet undefined but undoubtedly sizeable IFAS budget cuts.”

Organizing Efforts

Hoblick and the FFB were among the first to step up to help organize the massive response to the fear that IFAS’s budget would have to shoulder an unfair portion of the $50 million in cuts at the university as the state tightens its belt in the wake of a huge revenue shortfall.

Only days after the controversy erupted, the FFB organized a conference call with agricultural leaders from across the state. More than 50 people were included on the call and there was general agreement that the industry had to come at this challenge as a united front. Soon after, action kits and member alerts were being disseminated from various farm groups statewide.

Resounding Response

While Machen denied ever saying that agriculture was dying in the state and not worthy of funding, as was published in the Farm & Ranch News, the magnitude of responses from growers and industry leaders make it clear they are not at all confident in Machen’s appreciation of the state’s ag sector.

“IFAS is very important to our operation, because of their expertise and ability to identify and solve problems that we continue to encounter on our farms,” says Tony DiMare, vice president of the DiMare Company. “We as growers don’t have the time or expertise to study the many crop problems we encounter. Without sufficient funding to specifically address pests and diseases that continue to devastate our crops, we don’t stand a chance to survive in this very difficult and challenging industry.

“One specific benefit we have seen in our business from the work of IFAS has been the reduction of methyl bromide dependency through testing of different high-barrier mulch films. We also have benefited from IFAS breeding programs with the development of disease and virus resistant tomato varieties. Varieties also have been developed to enhance the overall quality and taste of our product.”

Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, says all of the state’s growers have benefited from the work of IFAS.

“The support given to the industry by Extension agents such as Phyllis Gilreath and Gene McAvoy have been essential to assisting the tomato growers by providing information and education,” he says.

Citrus Industry Springs To Action

Within days of the controversy, Florida Citrus Mutual (FCM) sent a call to action to its 8,000 members to contact Machen and lawmakers to remind them of the importance of the $9 billion citrus industry in Florida, and the important role of IFAS in maintaining citrus production.

“Many of the research projects designed to combat citrus greening are IFAS administered,” says Mike Sparks, executive vice president/CEO of FCM. “Consequently, it would be devastating to cut IFAS’ budget at a time when research may well determine the future of Florida citrus. Research must continue unabated to achieve maximum results. This will not happen on a shoestring budget. The Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred is ground zero in the fight against greening. We have more than 100 research projects underway, and many are taking place at CREC. If we expect to uncover a bio-control for greening or a greening-resistant citrus tree, the research must be fully funded. Anything less is unacceptable

 “I certainly understand the difficulty of tough budget choices, but Dr. Machen should consider the importance of Florida agriculture and its reliance on IFAS before he makes any final decisions. If cuts must be made, we ask that he make them equitably across the university without disproportionate cuts to IFAS.”

Tallahassee Troubles

The budget problems at UF stem from a huge deficit that state lawmakers are grappling with in Tallahassee. With the economic slowdown and housing bust, lawmakers will be looking to cut $400 to $600 million immediately before the start of the new fiscal year. That’s before the legislators even begin to hammer out the 2008-2009 fiscal year budget, which Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed $70 billion to fund. Gov. Crist hopes gambling revenues will help make up some of the projected shortfalls, and as of press time, was proposing to dip into 39 state trust funds to cover recurring spending for fiscal year 2008-2009.

With revenue shortfalls projected to only grow over the next two years, budget cutters will keep their scissors sharp, so agriculture’s fight on behalf of IFAS won’t likely end soon. President Machen has asked each UF unit to develop a 6% reduction plan, though he insists cuts at the university will not be across-the-board.

“I do not anticipate that the reductions will be applied in an across-the-board format,” he said, “and each unit needs to develop a reduction plan that could support both programmatic and general reductions.”

In the face of current and future cuts, the ag community appears committed to fight on behalf of IFAS because of the valuable role it plays for Florida growers.

As Florida Fruit & Vegetable president Mike Stuart puts it: “IFAS programs play a vital role in keeping agriculture vibrant in this state. FFVA’s members rely on IFAS research and Extension to stay competitive, expand their enterprises, and thrive in a global marketplace. In addition, American consumers benefit from a safe and stable food supply.”

Stuart also recounts one of many stories where IFAS researchers helped one grower and, ultimately, the state.

“Several years back, a watermelon grower whose plants were inexplicably dying approached IFAS for help,” he says. “Work began to figure out what was causing the problem. The disease eventually started appearing in other crops as well. As the research continued, USDA also got involved. Through intense scrutiny and their collaboration, the IFAS and USDA teams determined the disease was a squash leaf-yellowing virus carried by whiteflies. Now, growers are using measures to control more strongly for whitefly, and the incidence of the disease has started to drop.”              

Giles is editor of Florida Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication.

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