Q&A With Sonia Tighe

Recently, Sonia Tighe took on the role of executive director of the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation (FSCF). She says she is excited to put her experience in the state’s agriculture sector to work for specialty producers.

A veteran of agricultural publishing, Tighe spent 26 years with Vance Publishing Corp., the last five of which she served as group publishing director. She is vice president of Florida Agri-Women, chair of the Florida Ag Expo Committee, and co-chair of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s Benefit Auction. Florida Grower had a chance to ask Tighe questions about her new endeavor and the Foundation’s impact on the ag community.

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Q&A With Sonia TigheQ. What is the role of the FSCF?
A. The mission of the FSCF is to benefit the general public through initiatives that provide solutions to chalenges facing specialty crop producers and their stakeholders. Specialty crop producers face complex problems and issues, and the Foundation addresses those issues through research, education, and philanthropy.
For this year, we have identified two key areas of focus. No. 1 is to conduct research and education initiatives that will serve as major contributions to long-term sustainability of Florida specialty crop producers. And, No. 2, is to enhance the lives of children of those working in the specialty crop industry, and of young people pursuing careers in agriculture.
Since its inception in 1991, the Foundation has raised more than $6 million through public support, government grants, and special events. This funding has been used extensively to support research and educational activities that benefit Florida’s fruit and vegetable producers.

Q. How does the FSCF help facilitate research and what are some current projects the group supports?
A. The Foundation provides support for specialty crop research with direct funding and contract management with the specialty crop block grants. Recent research projects that have received Foundation funds include: identification of vectors for groundnut ringspot virus; Center for Produce Safety research on reducing postharvest contamination of tomatoes and peppers; and farm labor contractor training. We currently cooperate on two block grants: farm labor contractor training and late blight research in potatoes and tomatoes.
In a broader context, the Foundation has provided funds for projects and organizations that will have a positive impact on our industry, such as the annual Agricultural Labor Relations Forum, the University of Florida Foundation, the Produce for Better Health Foundation, ‘America’s Heartland’ agricultural programming, the International Research Conference on HLB, and the Farm Foundation.
Annually, the Foundation sponsors the Benefit Auction and the golf tournament during the FFVA convention to raise money to support our programs. We also raise money through direct support from the industry and securing grants for various projects.

Q. In what ways is FSCF looking to enhance outreach and education to growers?
A.
One of the primary educational venues is the annual Agricultural Labor Relations Forum. This seminar educates growers, shippers, processors, and other agricultural employers on regulatory and legislative issues regarding farmworkers, as well as updates on workers’ compensation, I-9 audits, wage and hour enforcement initiatives, wage-hour law practices, and H-2A regulations.
Based on our recent strategic planning process, grower education and outreach will be key areas which we will evaluate further to determine what the priorities and needs are for the Florida specialty crop industry as well as for researchers and other industry stakeholders.
We are very fortunate to have the depth of experience of the staffs of Florida’s ag industry associations to identify current industry issues and determine how best to communicate relevant information to the industry.

Q. How does FSCF work to enhance the lives of children of those working in the specialty crop industry?
A.
The George F. Sorn Scholarship is a college scholarship program for children of farmworkers involved in Florida specialty crop agriculture. Up to $3,000 is available annually to the student selected. Currently, five students are receiving this scholarship.
Additionally, the Foundation is a strong supporter of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) programs. Funds have been given to improve RCMA’s core programs in preschool education and family support, as well as a new middle school in Wimauma.
Thanks to a partnership with Bayer CropScience, pesticide safety training is provided to parents of children enrolled in RCMA Migrant Head Start programs. This program also included the installation of hand-washing sinks at the centers so parents can wash their hands before they pick up their children. The Foundation also participates in the RCMA Christmas Card Committee, which raises money through the sale of holiday cards designed by RCMA students. This past holiday season, the program raised nearly $30,000.

Q. How does FSCF reach out to young people to communicate the career opportunities in agriculture?
A.
We support the Florida 4-H Foundation and the Florida FFA Foundation, and work cooperatively with Syngenta to promote their scholarship to college students studying agriculture. This year we also will evaluate other programs (e.g. Ag in the Classroom, UF’s student National Agri-Marketing Association chapter, the Ag Hall of Fame mentor program, etc.) to see how we may become more effectively involved in developing the careers of young people in agriculture. The Foundation works on a very broad range of activities and projects, all of which can make a positive difference for this industry.