Tour of Chinsegut spurs thoughts of what could be

Florida A & M University forum participants tour the buildings and facilities in the sprawling Chinsegut Hill property.
Florida A & M University forum participants tour the buildings and facilities in the sprawling Chinsegut Hill property.
Published Nov. 3, 2016


Howard Dunn, like a lot of people who had gathered at the top of Chinsegut Hill, looked down into the grassy valley and imagined what might grow there.

Calves were first on his list.

"I'm a cattleman," said Dunn, who is president of the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association and whose profession could be guessed by his jeans, denim shirt, cowboy boots and cowboy hat.

But Dunn could also see experimental patches planted in citrus, blueberries and crepe myrtles. He envisioned plots of high-nutrient grazing fodder, such as perennial peanuts, and hemp plants for fiber and maybe biofuel. He could even picture fish farms.

"I'd like to see a little of this and a little of that," said Dunn, of Ocala. "I'd like to see an array of things."

Inspiring such visions was one of the two goals of events held recently by the new owner of the property, Florida A&M University.

The university, which took over the 3,800-acre former home of a federally owned cattle research station at Chinsegut last year, held a community forum to introduce itself to members of more than two dozen organizations with an interest in the property, including the Black Farmers, the city of Brooksville and Hernando County.

The lunchtime event was followed by the vision-inspiring tour of the facility, now called the Brooksville Agricultural and Environmental Research Station.

Though the ideas varied, one thing is certain: The land, which was mostly closed to the public during its 80 years as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Subtropical Research Center, will now be very much open.

"We want there to be outreach, education, collaboration and service," said Michelle Roberts, the facility's budget manager.

The land originally was owned by Raymond and Margaret Robins, who lived on Chinsegut Hill, and donated the property to the federal government in 1932, partly to satisfy tax debts.

The USDA conducted research at the center until 2012, when it was closed due to federal budget cuts.

When the university signed an agreement that gives it ownership of the property for 25 years, it committed to encouraging beginning farmers and ranchers, said Patricia Green-Powell, the interim vice president who will run the research station.

That means the land definitely will host and teach young people, including, but not exclusively, students of the university, though FAMU does have a history of operating facilities far from its main campus in Tallahassee, including a pharmacy school in Tampa and a law school in Orlando.

The operating agreement also requires that the university conduct research into agriculture and natural resources.

To help determine the focus of this research, Green-Powell said, the university took a survey of the people who attended the forum. Among their priorities, she said, are encouraging sustainable agriculture and economic growth.

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The university will also consider non-intrusive recreational uses, including trails linking the land to other properties formerly owned by the Robinses.

Before any of that can happen, Powell-Green said, the university must find funding from sources such as the state budget and the grant program of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The university is also hoping to bring in partners that might hold research and educational programs at center, including the Hernando County School District, the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service and Pasco-Hernando State College.

So, there are still obstacles to overcome, but the recent event was a time to imagine, to picture the crops that might one day cover the property's rolling hills, pasture and patches of woods.

Stephen Leong, an associate dean of FAMU's College of Agriculture and Food Science, said that one of the crops is grapes, the potential of which the university cited when it signed the land agreement last year.

"This is an ideal location" for viticulture, Leong said. "You need undulating, well-drained land. There is no doubt that things will grow fantastically here."

Contact Dan DeWitt at; follow @ddewitttimes.