October 21, 2014

Research

A Tough Row to Hoe for IFAS

IFAS, the state's 300 million agricultural research powerhouse, faces both internal struggles over its role and the impact of state budget cuts.

Cynthia Barnett | 8/1/2008
Tom Frazer
UF Research Foundation professor Tom Frazer was named associate director of IFAS’ School of Forest Resources and Conservation after a recent round of budget cuts that eliminated the Department of Fisheries and merged it into the forestry school. As in forestry, IFAS fisheries researchers work on harvesting as well as environmental protection. Frazer works on water quality issues in both coastal and freshwater Florida. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

At the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, a professor named Pierce Jones works with developers and counties throughout the state to help slash water and energy use in new master-planned residential communities. By choosing low-impact landscaping over traditional turf grass, Jones says, developers can dramatically curtail water and fertilizer use for decades to come.

“Our clients — local governments and developers and water utilities — are asking us how to create low-maintenance landscapes that significantly reduce or even eliminate irrigation and fertilizer,” says Jones. With several hundred thousand homes in the state’s permitting pipeline, the vast majority in master-planned communities, “we could have an absolutely stunning impact on water use, energy use and pollution statewide.”

Elsewhere at the institute, professors Laurie Trenholm and Jerry Sartain have a different take on turf and fertilizer. They’re working to figure out exactly how much nitrate and phosphorous leach from Florida lawns — in order to show that homeowners can still enjoy green grass and fertilize it as long as they do so correctly. “There’s a perception that lawns are a cause of pollution, but whether that is true or not may be another story,” says Trenholm. “Having a lawn should not be thought of as environmentally bad.”

“IFAS can’t be all things to all people, yet we need to figure out how to serve the 18 million people of Florida with the resources we have.”
— fisheries professor Tom Frazer

The turf tussle at IFAS is more than a scholarly debate. It is but one example of a struggle for relevancy under way at Florida’s $300-million agricultural research powerhouse. Always a vital cog in Florida’s agricultural machine, IFAS has broadened its focus in the 21st century to include natural resources and urban-agricultural sustainability issues such as growth management and climate change. But the traditional and new roles sometimes conflict. And now, state and local budget cuts mean tough choices ahead.

“IFAS can’t be all things to all people, yet we need to figure out how to serve the
18 million people of Florida with the resources we have,” says fisheries professor Tom Frazer, whose department was eliminated this spring as part of a $9.8-million cut in the institute’s budget. The problem, he says, is competing demands and value systems — “different ideas about how to fulfill the mission of IFAS in the 21st century.”

Lonnie Ingram
“You have farmers, environmentalists and others coming together in Florida in ways they never have before,” says Jimmy Cheek, UF’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “This is helping create a new IFAS.” [Photo: Milt Putnam / IFAS top]

IFAS traces its roots to the 19th century. The U.S. Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grant universities in an effort to bring advanced practical research to Americans who didn’t have access to higher education. Over time, Congress also asked the universities to build agricultural experiment stations and cooperative extension efforts that sent agents into rural areas to bring research to farmers.

Today, in addition to housing UF’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, forestry, natural resources and other academic divisions, IFAS maintains offices in every one of Florida’s 67 counties, as well as 13 research and education centers in 19 locations around the state. In Homestead, for example, IFAS professors teach and research tropical and subtropical crops from papayas to passion fruit. In Lake Alfred — the largest citrus-research center in the world — IFAS faculty battle the citrus greening disease that threatens to wipe out Florida’s signature crop.

Tags: Politics & Law, Agriculture, Environment, Government/Politics & Law

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