Continued Commitment to Florida Farmers

Jack Payne
Jack Payne

Extension folks have been learning from Suwannee County Farm Bureau President Randall Dasher for 30 years.

Dasher was one of the first farmers Bob Hochmuth met when he arrived at the Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center in the late 80’s.

Back then, Bob and Randall talked greenhouse hydroponics. Those conversations continue to this day at Randall’s farm, at the Extension center, at the Farm Bureau meetings that Bob regularly attends, at the Extension advisory committee meetings that Dasher participates in and even over catfish at Starling’s in Live Oak.

Over that time, Bob learned a lot from Randall about what farmers’ needs are, and how the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences might meet those needs. I’d argue that no one has done as much as Bob has in recent years to help farmers in the Suwannee Valley. That’s a lot of farmers, because nearly a fifth of the farms in the state are in the area served by the center.

Three years ago, Hochmuth came to a career crossroads. He was ready to retire. I had other plans for him. I needed a center director.

Bob said he wasn’t interested in being a caretaker. He said he’d only accept the job if the IFAS dean of Extension, dean of research and I all pledged to invest in the revival of Suwannee.

Invest we have. Under Bob’s leadership, IFAS and its partner organizations have put $1

Bob Hochmuch conducting a hydroponics workshop in Suwannee County.
Bob Hochmuch conducting a hydroponics workshop in Suwannee County.

million in the center for an expanded conference room, lab renovations, tractor leases, irrigation equipment, a new agronomic crop position and a new regional specialized water agent.

It has contributed to a boom in research and Extension so that the center is now involved in $31 million worth of research on some 50 projects.

Bob and Randall aren’t done. Neither are we at IFAS.

Through the advisory board meetings, Randall and other Farm Bureau leaders have continued to advise Bob about needs yet unmet. We’ve taken that input and gone to Tallahassee with it.

We’ve requested nearly $2 million in state funding for facilities, equipment and a covered educational pavilion. If we are successful, we don’t think we’ll have to turn away people from workshops any more for lack of space and adequate facilities.

Fortunately for Florida agriculture, we have a number of Bob Hochmuths and Randall Dashers across the state. Those relationships have helped us identify other needs that we’ll be seeking funding for so we can do more to meet them.

For example, we have proposed that the Legislature fund upgrades to labs, greenhouses, shade houses and student living space at our Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead. We’re also seeking funding for renovations in our experimental fields at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee to improve our research on behalf of production agriculture.

We also hope to get the legislature’s backing as we seek to develop the next generation of best management practices.

We would not be so in tune with farmers’ needs if people like Bob and Randall didn’t have such a strong bond. And Bob wouldn’t be able to deliver so much to the valley if he didn’t have the backing of Florida agriculture’s de facto discovery and innovation arm, UF/IFAS.

During this session, it’s imperative that we speak as one voice for agriculture. The UF/IFAS budget is a state investment in your success. We hope we can continue to count on both your feedback to identify your needs, and your support in Tallahassee to help us meet those needs.

By Jack Payne

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.