IFAS celebrates expansion, support

After nearly being downgraded to a simple demonstration facility just a couple years ago, the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services (IFAS) in Immokalee is once again taking its place as a major influence in Florida agriculture.

On January 5 IFAS and its supporters celebrated another step along the way in expanding its capabilities, which are all geared toward improving various aspects of the area’s agricultural industry. Last summer supporters welcomed a 7,000 square foot addition to the center.

Now a new wing is ready and faculty members are being hired in several disciplines. Gurreet Brar, a citrus horticulturist researcher for 120,000 acres of commercial citrus plantings, began in November, and Ute Albrecht, a plant physiologist, began her new job Jan. 4. New faculty members are currently being recruited for Precision Agricultural Engineering, Weed Science and Soil Microbiology disciplines.

This new 7,000 foot addition expands the facility to a total of 28,000 feet.

The center sits on 320 acres on SR 29S, just north of Immokalee. One of 13 research and education centers in Florida, this facility was originally built in the 1958 as the South Field Laboratory (a UF support facility) serving Collier and Hendry counties. In 1986 it became a full fledged research center. It is considered so important that the farming community banded together two years ago to ensure not just that it survive but thrive through Legislative funding.

The Florida Legislature granted $2 million to UF to build the facility, which houses three new labs and 11 offices for six new faculty members.

At the dedication, IFAS Center Director Dr. Calvin Arnold welcomed a dais crowded with friends of agriculture – legislators, UF faculty and a grower – who take pride in the center and in the area’s significant national and international role in agriculture.

He noted that the center relies on UF for everything it does and on the Legislature for much of its funding.

He noted that the center enjoys widespread support across the state and picked out agriculture pioneers, LaBelle’s Hugh English and Ben Hill Griffin III.

Currently ten UF grad students working on their Masters or PhDs live on the site. Dr. Arnold couldn’t let the opportunity go by to point out that the center is now seeking Legislative funding for a dormitory to house students.

Dr Jack Payne, Senior Vice President of Agriculture and Natural Resources, noted the gratitude of all at the center for the unwavering support of Legislators and growers and other stakeholders. He offered his admiration to Dr. Arnold for “rebooting” the center as well as all the faculty and staff members who make it all happen every day. He added that great things are expected from the center, saying “our people make us special.”

Dr. Payne also commented on the key role the Legislature plays in the success of IFAS and the area’s agriculture. He said agriculture is engaged in both a sprint and a marathon, making adequate funding even more necessary.

He also noted that “time is of the essence” when it comes to the state’s citrus industry, with diseases like greening threatening its viability.

UF President W. Kent Fuchs noted the array of groups represented at the ribbon cutting, including elected officials from the state and county levels, including County Commissioner Tim Nance and worldwide leaders in education. This addition will bring more students, workers and ultimately infrastructure – it’s a “magical combination,” he added.

Dr. Fuchs said UF wants to be recognized as one of the best in its field. IFAS, he said, also needs to be the best. He added that the center needs recurring funding so it can “double down” on the real problems faced by agriculture and Southwest Florida can compete in a global market.

South Florida Ag Council Chair and grower Aaron Troyer explained that agriculture is now of $8.1 billion economic importance to the community and a force to continue to provide a stable US food supply. He said that IFAS research is focused on the unique geographical problems of this area, funded by public and private dollars. He noted that IFAS continues to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Area Legislators had their say as well in support of the expanding facility.

The SWFREC serves growers, farmers and other clients in Collier, Charlotte, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties.

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