Even though industries, such as tourism, aerospace and financial services continue to help drive Florida’s prosperity, there is no doubt that the Sunshine State’s economy is still firmly rooted in agriculture.
Florida’s agriculture industry employs more than 2 million people and contributes more than $100 billion to the state’s economy each year. The agriscience research community in Gainesville, including the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (IFAS), is working to ensure the agriculture and food production industries keep growing.
Bigger and Better
The IFAS, is one of the largest comprehensive agriculture research and extension systems in the United States and is the leader in agriscience research and development in Florida.
“We have comprehensive research teaching and extension programs that address all phases of the agriculture and natural resources industry in the state,” says Alan Hodges, an IFAS extension scientist. “We address the big iconic industries in Florida, such as the citrus industry and other fruits and vegetables, ornamental plants, livestock systems and forestry, but we also focus on soft disciplines, such as family use, community sciences, agricultural education and communication and resource economics.”
IFAS works closely with the private sector to develop innovative new technologies and production practices as well as plant varieties. For example, Hodges says, many of the varieties of blueberries and strawberries that have adapted best to the state’s environment were developed by IFAS breeders.
Rooted in Research
“We also have faculty working with the industry on developing best management practices for production that can increase yields and profitability while reducing costs and reducing water and pesticide use and reducing the impact on the environment,” Hodges says. “We’re trying to help producers be good stewards, minimizing the adverse impacts on the environment. We’re also trying to promote the industry and improve the quality of life for the region. I don't think it's an overstatement to say that agriculture in Florida would not exist without the strong research and development effort that comes from the University of Florida.”
He points to the state’s citrus industry as another example of IFAS impact. IFAS scientists are working on a solution to citrus greening. Citrus production has declined by about 70 percent over the last decade as a result of a disease that causes rapid decline and death of the tree.
“Our scientists have identified some genes in the citrus plant that can possibly be edited using a gene editing technology to make the trees resistant to this particular pathogen,” Hodges says. “If we had a genetic technology to make citrus trees resistant to the HLB disease, that would be an absolutely huge advance. It literally could save this iconic industry in the state.”
The work being done by Gainesville’s agriscience community has also impacted areas, such as food safety and quality management.
Actionable Quality Assurance, a tech company that offers data-driven solutions for restaurants to manage vendor compliance, was born from the University of Florida Innovation Hub.
“The uniqueness of the Innovation Hub is that it brings together seasoned mentors for helping startup companies understand the landscape, what they should be doing, and how best to do it. It includes an infrastructure of on-site attorneys, intellectual property and general business attorneys,” says John King, chief operation officer for Actionable Quality Assurance. “Business attorneys, investors and accountants, CPA firms and so forth, all share some office space here and are available for coaching and directing.”
King says Gainesville’s strong research-driven agriscience network has made it a perfect breeding ground for ag-based innovation.
“Gainesville is a wellspring of resources, particularly information technology resources and other scientific resources from the university,” King says. “Then there is the talent -- kids coming out of school that are willing to jump into a startup and put their all towards it. That's a major calling card for this area. It's just a young, vibrant environment.”