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Gulf Coast Research and Education
Center

One of 13 agricultural research centers operated by the University of Florida. The local one is based in Balm in eastern Hillsborough County.

Local employees: 52

Center director:
Jack Rechcigl

Faculty helped save UF agriculture research center

Unceasing state budget cuts have brought the tight-knit workers who toil in the soil at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center even closer together.

"The threat to close us down was a real wakeup call," said Jack Rechcigl, director of the center that dodged that bullet only to face more. "We're clearly headed toward more privatization. But morale is up after we proved we have team players willing to solve whatever comes at us."

Said Joyce Jones, an agriculture assistant for 20 years: "It's been scary, but what the faculty did to save our jobs was unbelievable. It made us all feel valued."

The 2005 closure threat touched off a lobbying effort by Tampa Bay strawberry, tomato, nursery and vegetable growers to save the teams of University of Florida entomologists, plant pathologists, soil scientists and cross breeding experts who help keep their industries alive.

After all, the center is birthplace of the "Festival" strain of strawberries that's now 60 percent of the nation's winter crop. Its tomato breeders are trying to get a new tastier tomato into supermarkets while developing a more rugged version for fast food suited for machine harvesting instead of pricey hand-picking. Researchers created tactics and plants that protect the state's biggest cash crops from an ever-changing array of bugs, diseases and pesticide rules.

Once the growers were on board, Hillsborough and Manatee county governments waged a bidding war to land the jobs. A cramped old center in Bradenton was sold and the cash used to build a $14 million replacement that opened in 2006 on 496 acres donated by Hillsborough County at the epicenter of the bay area agricultural veldt.

But the state budget ax was still swinging. Two years later, the center faced terminating more than half its full-time staff of 52 until the 19 Ph.D. research professors agreed to raise money from grants and private industry to avoid layoffs and provide modest annual raises.

By this year, the center, which employs 120 including part-timers, had avoided layoffs and raised its budget by a third to $5.8 million. All this was accomplished despite a 30 percent cut in state funding since 2006.

In the academic research world, top professors often fiercely guard their programs like private fiefdoms. But at Gulf Coast, they locked arms to raise the money to maintain the whole center and its research, educational and environmental health missions.

While layoffs struck elsewhere among UF's 13 agricultural field research centers around Florida, employees at Balm were so relieved they staged a surprise "thank you" lunch for the faculty.

People who work there say they are passionate about the science, like wearing jeans to work and don't mind getting their hands dirty. One commutes 90 miles daily.

Ten miles into the boondocks from the nearest restaurant in southeast Hillsborough, center staff uses the full kitchen for mealtime socializing. Educational conferences on research topics are frequent.

So many birthday parties were celebrated, the center limits them to one collective fete a month. But potluck meals, including an international one cooked up by staff and 16 resident grad students hailing from 25 countries, are routine.

The faculty did not just preserve jobs, it enabled new programs to get on their feet.

To Gary Vallad, a plant pathologist hired in 2008 to set up a program in the face of mass layoffs, it was "pretty alarming."

"If it wasn't for the faculty, we would not have gotten off the ground," he said.

Indeed, growers and federal agencies want lots of research.

Center plant breeders, who created many of the most popular varieties of caladiums sold in the United States, are using DNA splicing to develop a seedless more colorful lantana that sports red pink, gold or yellow blooms. It's suitable for gardens without becoming an invasive imported species.

Scientists developed a weather monitor alert system that can cut strawberry watering in half. Testing continues on freeze protection tactics like plastic "hoop house" tunnels that protect crops in Spain. Others are tracking disease-fighting alternatives to methyl bromide, a soil fumigant outlawed for depleting the ozone.

But the budget storm lingers.

Relying on grants means work once automatically renewed is now done on a project basis. There's risk that research will be directed more by grower and chemical company interests than a broader public interest.

State support eroded deeply enough to cover only the salaries of the faculty, so the other half — the equipment and labor intensive field work — must be financed elsewhere. Meantime, the Legislature is still in session cutting spending. The state's new corrections director wants to close a women's prison nearby that provides the center with 25 work release inmates a day paid $2 an hour to work the fields while getting certified job training.

"That's going to really hurt," Rechcigl said. "Even at $10 an hour, it's hard to find people to work in the summer heat."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Faculty helped save UF agriculture research center 04/16/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 17, 2011 2:52am]
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