Cowboys, sugar, and horticulture: VALOR fellows explore South Central Florida

VALOR Class II expanded its horizons with a six-day November trip to Florida, their eighth of 12 seminars. And while there is no doubt about the diversity of agriculture in our own commonwealth, seeing a small slice of Florida’s agricultural diversity was eye-opening.

Comparing the two states further reveals some major differences. Florida represents nearly 66,000 square miles of land and nearly 20 million residents, while Virginia has roughly 43,000 square miles and just over 8 million people. This difference in size was illustrated often during the seminar. Another difference? Florida’s commissioner of agriculture is elected, while both Virginia’s commissioner and secretary of agriculture are appointed by the governor.

VALOR in Florida

Focusing on the large central interior of Florida’s peninsula, the group toured 11 different locations and met with 22 agriculture and natural resource leaders, including members of Florida’s adult agriculture education group, the Wedgeworth Leadership Institute. Our group, traveling together in a large passenger van (complete with tricky locks), had many opportunities for team building and deepening our class bonds.

The trip began at Crystal Springs, a unique combination of a privately owned nature preserve focused on environmental education that also sells a portion of its natural Zephyrillis Springs water through a marketing partnership. Encompassing 525 acres, the self-funded and well-staffed preserve is an important keeper of Florida’s naturally rich past, present, and future. Their business partner, Two Rivers Ranch, is a diversified cattle, timber, and conservation organization that owns and manages 14,000 acres in Central Florida. This combination of agriculture and environment, with strong support from state government, is a winning partnership that occurs often in Florida.

At Bok Gardens we saw another public-private partnership focused on community outreach through gardening. Both beautiful and educational, the gardens offer a different view of Florida and include a joint effort with University of Florida Extension to promote both community and school gardens.

Even local county politics have an agricultural focus, promoting and supporting the local rodeo and its facility in Desoto County. Retired Extension director Jim Selph makes sure agriculture is a priority on the county board of commissioners.

Heading south towards Lake Okeechobee, the landscape changes to flat, open land with miles of native grass, canals, cabbage palms, and an occasional alligator. As the third largest cattle operation in the country, Lykes Brothers Ranch manages an astonishing 337,000 acres of forest, sugar cane, and cattle pasture where they raise Florida “cracker” calves known for their hardiness and heat tolerance. Lykes Brothers shares the same commitment to land and water conservation and environmentally friendly practices we’d seen at other stops.

Vertically integrated C&B farm impressed us with over 2,000 acres of vegetable production, including some organic plasticulture, growing 60 different crops for markets around the country. Owner Chuck Obern’s management style includes having all crops marketed prior to production, and growing niche specialty crops to take advantage of market demands.

Watching sugar cane harvesting in one field of U.S. Sugar‘s over 200,000 acres of cropland was a new adventure for the whole group. From the controlled, advance burning of this perennial crop, to the very specialized harvest equipment, sugar cane harvest is a unique experience. Touring the refinery located near the southern border of Lake Okeechobee in the town of Clewiston offered more insights into the singular culture of South Central Florida. The group tasted from both a mountain of raw sugar and fried Okeechobee catfish for an end to an exciting day.

Travelling north to the Apopka area brought us back to “civilization” with traffic, people, and development. It’s also the home of many green house operations with more surprising diversity. Knox Gardens specializes in bedding plants, offering about 150 million plugs of over 5,000 varieties annually, including thousands of poinsettia. The Apopka branch of DeRoose Nurseries, with three global locations, specializes in bromeliads and pitcher plants for indoor landscaping. And Agristarts, Inc. operates a state of the art plant tissue culture lab producing a wide variety of starter plants for other growers.

Poinsettias in Florida

A stop at the UF/IFAS Mid-Florida Research and Education Center completed our tour.  Seeking to educate both agriculture students and the public, to advance public-private collaborations, and to promote and implement advanced practices such as Precision Plant Breeding, the university and its Extension arm represent the best of Florida agriculture and its future success. In fact, throughout our trip we were guided by dedicated and informed extension staff, including our own Brad Burbaugh.

With an eye towards science, the environment, water conservation, and education, the university exemplifies the support and vision for agriculture that were prominent throughout our tour. The lessons learned by this VALOR class will be a valuable part of our agriculture and leadership experiences. Our diverse Florida adventure will also be a good platform from which to launch our international seminar to Vietnam in January, taking to heart what Dennis Gray advised us – to “stand in the present, look into the future, using the past for clarity of hindsight only.”

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