McAvoy leaving after 22 years of service as county Extension Agent

LABELLE — Gene McAvoy is set to retire July 31 after spending 22 years in his position as the Hendry County Extension Service’s director and the regional vegetable Extension agent for Southwest Florida. It’s not just the vast local knowledge he’s assembled during and before that time in agricultural fields that the Extension Service of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences — and its many clients — will miss. Mr. McAvoy has cultivated a passion for his work that’s become well-known in agricultural circles and is a font of information for growers and many others involved in the agriculture industry.

His route into this career position was a zigzag global journey that started with him picking tomatoes at a farm near where he grew up in New Jersey (in part to finance his college education) to working with farmers at small vegetable plots in Niger (West Africa) and Jamaica during a stint with the Peace Corps. That was after he got his bachelor’s degree in plant science at Rutgers. Mr. McAvoy says those experiences kindled his “lifelong love of agriculture” and that he joined the Peace Corps after college because he had “a desire to repay society for the generous financial assistance and scholarships that I received.”

In between those two international assignments, he joined the Rutgers faculty, helped develop a new International Programs Office while teaching courses in vegetable production and marketing and seed multiplication while earning a master’s in horticulture and starting his family. Mr. McAvoy then returned to Florida for a few years and was an environmental specialist with the state Department of Health as a food safety and septic tank inspector, among other roles.

“I like to think that this experience helped me to understand the food chain from beginning to end!” Mr. McAvoy joked.

He did another work stint in Africa — Swaziland in the south, this time — and witnessed the end of apartheid in South Africa while he and his wife bore their third son.

In 1997, he was hired by the UF IFAS to be the vegetable/horticulture agent. “I had the privilege to work with the legendary Dallas Townsend, who was then the Hendry County director and a man to whom I am forever indebted,” he said, crediting Mr. Townsend with helping him to become effective in the new position.

Mr. McAvoy produces a regular newsletter called the Southwest Florida Vegetable Pest and Disease Hotline and says many of his readers told him they’ll continue to support it if he wants to continue doing it.

As he prepared to take his leave from the Extension job, he wrote a personal narrative about his career that oozed with gratitude for the community he joined those decades ago.

“This has been the best job in the world and an experience I would not trade for any other,” he wrote, adding that he could never have imagined that a “city boy from Newark would have ended up leading one of the finest Ag Extension offices in the state and country and that the journey from New Jersey to LaBelle would have led halfway around the world and exposed us to things that most people only get to see on TV.

“I have had a wonderful career and am extremely fortunate and most grateful that I and my family have been adopted by the good people of LaBelle, Hendry County and Southwest Florida and to have become part of this amazing community of agriculturists,” said his farewell letter. “We are just so blessed and honored to have had the opportunity to work with all of you.”

In an interview this week, he said he thought his work in Africa really had the biggest impact of his career. “Here, our growers are quite sophisticated.”

Mr. McAvoy said for that reason, only moving the needle a few notches for them was a fairly big accomplishment while the assistance he rendered in Africa had greater effect due to the backward technology and infrastructure on that continent.

He said his work to help farmers transition into the more complicated regulatory and trade systems of the 21st century was most important.

“When I first go there, this area was very highly dependent on tomatoes and a handful of crops. And we’ve gotten a lot more diverse … now we grow almost 60 different vegetables. There’s been an increase in regulatory requirements from food safety to applications of fertilizers, worker safety and pesticide safety, so I’ve worked a lot with growers on those, helping them cope with those changing regulations,” he said.

Their questions used to concern identifying insects or advice on fertilizers. “Now,” Mr. McAvoy said, “it’s more ‘How do I comply with this law or that law?’ or ‘I can’t make money with this crop that I’ve been growing for a long time, and I want to switch into something new. How do I do that?’”

He said he plans to continue his work in the agricultural field, just not as a state employee, because for one, “I’m the president-elect of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents, and I become president in September in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so that’ll keep me busy for the next few years.”

Beyond that, he and his wife have three sons, with two of them living in Hendry County with their families at present. “And they both have children, so my grandchildren live in Hendry County, and it would take dynamite to get my wife out of Hendry County,” he said.

Thus, he finished, “we’re going to be year-round here for the duration. We like it here. It’s funny, you know: I’ve traveled the world and this place has welcomed us with open arms.”

He’ll get plenty of reminders of that this month. “Although I am not big on fanfare, my staff has graciously organized an event to mark my retirement. So if you are around LaBelle on July 30, please feel free to stop by and reminisce,” he wrote.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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