Saturday, December 16, 2017
News Roundup

At 100, researcher still finding new veggies to grow

They call him the "Lettuce King," but 100-year-old Victor Guzman is more at home in a field than a castle.

Seeds are his passion, agriculture his life.

Officially retired, the University of Florida professor still climbs two flights of stairs most days to his office at the Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade, near his home. There, he continues his lifelong research into new vegetables to grow in Palm Beach County.

Guzman has developed lettuce, celery, beans, radishes and other crops to plant in the black-dirt muck of an increasingly urban county that still remains rural on its western edge.

One is the crisp, leafy Guzmaine lettuce, named after the man who also came up with Floribibb, a hardy gourmet lettuce that is resistant to two viruses.

"He's the reason the lettuce industry is so big in Florida," says grower David Basore, who credits Guzman with helping to establish Palm Beach County's lettuce industry, which generates tens of millions of dollars a year. With its sugar cane, rice and vegetable crops, the county is the largest agricultural producer of all counties east of the Mississippi River.

Guzman, who stores millions of seeds at the UF research center, downplays his contributions.

Farmers, he says, "are a bunch of smart guys. They went to college. I just show them, using my experience."

Guzman even downplays his own work ethic, despite plugging away almost daily at agricultural research for more than 60 years in South Florida.

"I am lazy," he says.

Basore won't hear of it. "He has a work ethic that is like no other," Basore says. "He loves what he does."

Guzman was born in Peru in June 1914, just before the start of World War I. "I always liked nature — plants, animals, trees, whatever," he says. He studied agriculture at the University of Peru, earned a master's degree at UF and then a doctorate at Cornell during World War II, before returning to Peru.

After a Peruvian military coup, Guzman and his U.S.-born wife, Ruth, moved back to the United States, settling in Belle Glade with their young son in 1952 as Guzman began his long career at the UF agricultural station.

Both his career and family flourished. The Guzmans had four other children and gave their brood a childhood filled with plants, animals and learning opportunities.

"We learned many life lessons from the various pets we shared our lives with, including dogs, cats, chickens, guinea fowl, turkeys, cows, rabbits, gators and snakes," their youngest daughter, Carroll Guzman, said in an email. "Both our parents also instilled the love of reading, learning, education in general, and the value of being curious and inquisitive about all matters."

Today, the five "remain avid lovers of fruits and vegetables of all types," she said.

Her father first began working on weed control in Belle Glade and began developing lettuce and celery varieties years later. By his 70s, he had published nearly 200 research papers, including one on South Bay "crisphead lettuce," named after the Palm Beach County town.

"He's an amazing guy," says Gregg Nuessly, interim director of UF's research center in Belle Glade. Guzman not only developed hardy vegetables, he introduced mechanized planting and weeding of celery, Nuessly says. "He's still working on things to make it easier" for farmers, Nuessly says.

Guzman retired in 1987, but Nuessly says he keeps returning to mentor, teach — and research. His office is stuffed with scientific files, data and seeds. Farmers have hired Guzman as a consultant to keep helping them.

Indeed, even into his 80s, Guzman traveled thousands of miles to collect seeds that might grow in South Florida. He's now working on a paper describing how a type of Peruvian bush-type field bean could be adapted to South Florida. Guzman brought back samples in 2002 and has experimented with them for more than a decade.

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