Author: Rod Hemphill
Business incubator is a buzzword that is currently in vogue here in north-central Florida. The official Alachua County government website lists ten incubators, places where budding entrepreneurs can find affordable rent, support staff and equipment as they collaborate on business start-ups.
These incubators range from a not-for-profit kitchen incubator for food entrepreneurs, to Gainesville Hackerspace and GatorLab, to the 48,000 square foot Florida Innovation Hub at the University of Florida and Santa Fe College’s 30,000 square food Technology Entrepreneur Center.
Local visionaries expect the incubators will foster a culture of innovation, and successful start-ups are beginning to emerge from them. However, people engaged in agriculture and natural resources have, for decades, recognized Gainesville as the red- hot center for innovation in those fields.
The entire state benefits from the research and technological advances these incubators produce. Our local community enjoys additional benefits, economically and otherwise, from the fact that these institutions are based here.
Florida’s 47,500 farms produce nearly 300 different commodities on more than 9 million acres of land. The Florida agriculture industry employs 2 million people and contributes more than $104 billion to our state’s economy each year. Yet, how much of that bounty accrues to north-central Florida? That’s a tough nut to crack.
Production agriculture has historically been important to Alachua County. A 2010 economic study pegged the economic impact of agricultural food and natural resources in the nine-county area around Gainesville at $3.89 billion, responsible for more than 62,000 jobs.
In compiling these figures, economists included forest products, manufacturing, mining, food distribution (including food and beverage establishments) and nature-based recreation, including golf courses and recognized the fact that dollars turn over many times in a local economy.
Four billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at. Production agriculture is, indeed, important to the local economy. But, revenues from production agriculture in other parts of the state far surpass those in north-central Florida – until you consider the additional impact of the Alachua County-based institutions which support the food and natural resource industries with research, education and Extension.
Since 1964, Alachua County has been home to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF-IFAS), the pioneer “incubator” that has been characterized as the research and development arm of Florida’s agriculture industry.
Fifty years ago, UF’s College of Agriculture, School of Forestry, Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service were consolidated into a single unit. Today, UF/IFAS comprises the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the School of Natural Resources and Environment and portions of the College of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, there are Extension offices in all 67 counties and 12 research and education centers at 20 locations around the state.
Today, UF-IFAS is involved in high technology innovation – developing methods and equipment for precision application of water and fertilizers, pest control, frost protection and the use of unmanned aircraft in agriculture.
Big data – the crunching of previously unmanageable masses of data — will likely make important contributions toward enhancing the food production system and improved understanding of weather and climate. UF-IFAS researchers can leverage the expertise of colleagues in other disciplines within the University of Florida.
In its 2013 briefing book, UF-IFAS provides insight into the number of faculty and staff it employs. The number of employees is constantly changing, so the book includes a “snapshot” of employees on October 12, 2012. Statewide, IFAS had 2,295 employees and 1,102 were on campus. All of those paychecks were being spent in the north central Florida economy.
Gainesville is home to other associations and institutions which support agriculture. The Florida Farm Bureau Federation and Insurance Companies moved their headquarters from Winter Park to Gainesville in the mid-1950s, according to the corporate history book A Voice for Agriculture, because “All agencies with which farmers dealt directly, with the exception of the State Department of Agriculture, were headquartered in Gainesville. These included the University of Florida College of Agriculture, Florida Agriculture Experiment Stations, the Extension Service, Agricultural Stabilization and Conservations offices, Farmers Home Administration, Soil Conservation Service and the State Plant Board.”
Adjoining the UF campus and facing SE 34th Street, is the headquarters of the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry (FDACS-DPI). As a regulatory agency of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the division works to detect, intercept and control plant and honey bee pests that threaten Florida’s native and commercially grown plants and agricultural resources.
The Gainesville headquarters include research laboratories that support the division’s regulatory efforts as well as rearing facilities for biocontrol agents, including a beetle that is being successfully released to control the noxious air potato and tiny flies that attack invasive fire ants. Along with scientists in other state and federal laboratories, DPI researchers are working on ways to control or eradicate citrus greening, or HLB, which is threatening Florida citrus industry.
The United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service maintains the Center for Medical, Agricultural and Veterinary Entomology (CMAVE), located on the University of Florida campus. There, more than 120 scientists and staff work on detection and control of mosquitoes. This lab first tested DEET, the world’s most effective mosquito repellent. The successor to DEET, A13-37220, is now undergoing final evaluation by the Department of Defense. The lab is also working on protection of crops from insect pests, controls for the imported fire ant, protection of stored food from insects and the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide on agriculture.
These, along with other branches of state, federal and academic facilities, make Gainesville and north central Florida the nerve center for Florida agriculture. That continues to be a source of pride, as well as economic support, for the greater north central Florida community.