Updated 11 months ago
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.”
“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.
• IFAS Budget Cuts
$7.2 million, including 53 staff positions and 45 faculty positions
$9.5 million, including 96 staff positions and 14 faculty positions
Indeed, even as urbanization has eaten into Florida’s agricultural acreage, IFAS has grown — making it somewhat of a target in a state facing financial woes. IFAS is funded by a variety of federal, state and local sources, and several cash-strapped counties — most recently Polk — have considered eliminating their funding to the extension service, although none has done so yet. State lawmakers had to lop $6 billion from Florida’s budget this year and are likely to return to the chopping block as state revenues decline along with the housing market. “There’s little question that IFAS has created value in years past,” says Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of the budget watchdog group Florida TaxWatch. “The question is whether it’s creating the same proportionate value today and whether any of its functions are duplicative now that we have public universities in every corner of the state.”
Politically, that’s a tough question to ask. IFAS has some of the most powerful constituents in the State University System. UF President Bernie Machen found that out earlier this year when he set about trimming $47 million, his university’s portion of the state cuts. Machen maintains across-the-board cuts are unwise because of their impact in the classroom. In February, an obscure journal called Farm & Ranch News quoted unnamed sources saying Machen planned to cut IFAS disproportionately and had called agriculture a “dying industry.” IFAS supporters from U.S. Congressman Adam Putnam to 4-H kids from across the state flooded Machen’s office with phone calls and a stack of letters more than 2 feet high, castigating Machen and politicians “who think food comes from the grocery store.”
|“There’s little question that IFAS has created value in years past. The question is whether it’s creating the same proportionate value today and whether any of its functions are duplicative now.”
— Dominic Calabro, president/CEO, TaxWatch
Ranchers wrote of IFAS’ role in helping them create conservation easements and urban water supply projects to maintain green space and combat urban sprawl. County commissioners wrote to laud IFAS for responding to their needs, such as hiring extension agents who specialize in growth management or disaster planning and preparedness.
An organized letter-writing campaign from 4-H participants included photos of the children speaking in public or showing animals. The implication that the president didn’t understand the importance of agriculture was painful for Machen and particularly his wife, Chris, a horse woman and active 4-H club leader when the couple’s daughter raised sheep in 4-H. Chris Machen quit the Florida 4-H Foundation board of directors in the midst of the brouhaha. Machen says he never uttered the “dying industry” words and never planned to treat IFAS any differently from other UF units. In the end, IFAS took a 6% hit, the same as other units. “And if we go through another round,” Machen says, “IFAS will be cut about the same as everyone else.”
IFAS leaders, not Machen, will decide what stays and what goes within the institute. IFAS’ expanding roles just make that task harder, says Jimmy Cheek, UF’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
Cheek spent much of this past legislative session — as he often does — explaining why IFAS is as relevant today as ever. Even with fewer farms on fewer acres, the market value of Florida’s agricultural crops is growing. Agriculture has jockeyed back and forth in recent years with home building as Florida’s second-largest industry behind tourism. The housing bust has ag in the No. 2 spot again — a bright spot in the otherwise lagging economy. Farm organizations say that IFAS research, such as genetic breeding for insect- or virus-resistant crops, keeps the state’s farmers competitive on a global scale.
At the same time, IFAS scientists work on problems facing urban Floridians. IFAS entomologist Nan-Yao Su in the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center is one of the world’s leading experts on termites, including the highly aggressive Formosan “super termite” that’s been spreading throughout the Southeast. IFAS nutrition professor Lynn Bailey is credited with linking folate — now recommended as a supplement for all pregnant women — to the prevention of birth defects.
Increasingly, IFAS scientists also work on issues at the interface of agricultural and urban Florida, from bio-energy research to carbon sequestration to water supply. IFAS microbiology professor Lonnie Ingram developed one of the more promising biofuel efforts under way in Florida — a process that turns biomass such as yard waste into cellulosic ethanol.
Ecologist Stephen Mulkey says shifting priorities at IFAS have helped convince him to leave the University of Florida.
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
But this new, hybrid IFAS has had trouble taking root. Natural-resources faculty say conservation-oriented fields have considerably less clout than commodity-oriented disciplines. In the latest round of budget cuts, for example, IFAS eliminated funding for research and outreach/extension in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. The former director of research and outreach for the school, UF ecologist Stephen Mulkey, also served as science adviser to the state’s Century Commission and helped convince Gov. Charlie Crist and other state leaders to commit to reducing Florida’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Mulkey saw IFAS in a key role of communicating climate-change science to the public and helping Florida prepare for rising seas and other impacts. With the funding cuts, “the outreach mission that I deemed so important has been discontinued entirely.”
In the end, state budget cuts mean more research programs will have to depend on outside funding, says Mark R. McLellan, IFAS’ dean for research and director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station. That’s good news for professors like Jones, whose Program for Resource Efficient Communities uses almost no state money but generates income with continuing education courses, book sales and consulting. Mulkey says it is bad news for teaching and outreach; he says the shifting priorities have helped convince him to leave UF for a position at the University of Idaho.
Machen and Cheek say teaching will remain a priority at IFAS, which includes the fourth-largest college at UF, the 5,000-student College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the largest transfer college on campus because it offers the only agriculture degree in Florida.
As for turf wars over turf grass and the changing politics of a changing climate: “Difference of opinion is a hallmark of a university,” says Machen. “But the implication, hopefully, is that science will dictate which initiatives take hold.”
• Traditional IFAS Roles and New Roles
| Agricultural commodities
research such as breeding crops that resist diseases and freezes
||Food safety||Human nutrition||Pest research to battle bugs from the fruit fly to the cockroach|
|Emerging Pathogens Institute devoted to researching new and re-emerging diseases that threaten human health, agriculture and tourism in Florida||Resource-efficient landscaping||Growth management and land use||Bio-energy|
• The World of IFAS
More than 5,000 students are enrolled in IFAS’ College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. [Photo: IFAS]
» Research: IFAS pulled in about $72 million in research, teaching and extension grants last year, both on campus and in its 13 research and education centers around the state. The largest contributor was the U.S. Department of Agriculture, followed by the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. The academic departments that landed the most grant funding were: Fisheries, $6.2 million; microbiology, $5.3 million; horticultural sciences, $4.8 million; agriculture and biological engineering, $4.3 million. IFAS researchers have brought to market nearly 300 new cultivars and inventions over the past five years, the majority of them plant germplasm.
» Extension: IFAS manages Florida Cooperative Extension Service offices in all 67 counties. Extension agents specialize in everything from traditional row crops to growth management and land-use. The service coordinates volunteers in programs such as the Master Gardener program. Extension volunteers work the annual equivalent of 672 full-time employees. IFAS youth programs such as 4-H focus on youth leadership development. Its Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program helps homeowners create and maintain efficient landscapes.