BROOKSVILLE — A horticulture specialist with a strong interest in food and water safety has joined the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service.
William Lester, 52, a University of Florida graduate with a doctorate in plant disease, will fill a role as urban and commercial horticulture agent. He succeeds Jim Moll, whose assignment had been limited to urban horticulture. Moll has taken a similar job with the Pasco County Cooperative Extension Service.
Ironically, Lester noted, his first day on the job, Nov. 12, coincided with the County Commission adopting its first ordinance regulating fertilizer applications in Hernando County.
While the ordinance applies to commercial applicators, Lester said, "We need to put together programs for urban users to protect water resources in the county.
"We'll be working with the county and city and the Southwest Florida Water Management District to put together web-based programs along with face-to-face classes to teach proper use of fertilizer and problems that have come up with Weeki Wachee Spring and other springs in the county."
As for commercial horticulture endeavors, Lester said his primary aim will be to educate the small growers of fruits and vegetables about food safety.
Also, Lester will work with commercial nurseries, whose output ranks No. 1 in value among horticultural products grown in the county.
Although produce from Hernando growers is sold mainly at fresh markets rather than processed, Lester said growers must take steps to prevent bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli from entering the food chain.
Hernando extension service director Stacy Strickland said Lester is an authority on farm food safety.
The federal Food and Drug Administration is in the process, Lester noted, of writing new rules for the Food Safety Act.
"Mostly the law applies to large growers, but it's still important to small growers because they have a liability issue," he said.
The new agent is putting together a list of food growers whom he intends to visit.
Lester envisions dividing his time equally between urban and commercial horticulture concerns. He will also oversee the county's master gardeners program, work with gardening clubs and homeowners' associations, and teach entomology at the regional 4-H camp.
Strickland said the Lester's salary is "in the high $40s." The county government pays 85 percent; the rest, along with benefits, is paid by the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service.
Lester, who has lived most of his life in Florida, earned a bachelor's degree from UF in horticulture science, specializing in organic and sustainable crop production. As he earned his doctorate, he served internships in a community-supported agriculture program and in extension, both in Volusia County and at the University of Florida Citrus Research Center in Lake Alfred.
He and his wife, Nora Kramer, are looking to relocate to Hernando County.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]