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  1. Opinion

Guest column: How people buy groceries is latest lesson for UF ag students in Plant City

Students work with drone equipment in a course taught by associate professor Amr Abd-Elraham, left, at the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Plant City. [University of Florida]
Students work with drone equipment in a course taught by associate professor Amr Abd-Elraham, left, at the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Plant City. [University of Florida]
Published Dec. 21, 2017

It used to be that the building on North Park Road in Plant City was where you bought your peppers, strawberries and tomatoes.

Now it's where your future food producers learn how to take the technology that maps your route to the market and to apply it to guiding a tractor. It's where they learn to remove obstacles in the journey from field to checkout line. And it's where they learn to tell the story behind what you eat.

The former supermarket has been transformed into a center of the science of how all that food got there. It's the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Plant City campus. Now its customers are the people who produce food so you can consume it.

Those customers asked for instruction in how you make choices in the grocery store. Starting in January, we'll provide it with the first classes in the science of how you spend your money. The UF/IFAS Food and Resource Economics Department is launching a degree program in Plant City.

The program is getting started with donations of $75,000 each from the Florida Strawberry Growers Association and the Florida Strawberry Festival. It also relies on Hillsborough Community College sharing space on its campus. And on Farm Credit of Central Florida and Sunshine Bank providing scholarships to students. We don't do this on our own.

Visiting the campus in November reminded me of why it's so important that UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has satellite campuses. Many of our Plant City students already have families and careers. That makes it challenging to get to Gainesville.

But they can derive such huge benefit if we can bring Gainesville to them. Take geomatics, a discipline that involves translating huge amounts of data into pictures and maps. Associate professor Amr Abd-Elraham started with no students a decade ago and now has 20 in Plant City.

More than 50 percent of UF/IFAS geomatics graduates own their own companies, and 65 percent manage or supervise a department in surveying and mapping, either in the private or public sector.

This is particularly important in Hillsborough County, one of the leading locations in Florida where the city bumps up against the farm. Agriculture and natural resources accounts for 180,000 jobs and an annual economic impact of more than $12 billion in Hillsborough County.

To keep that economic engine running, we need people trained in, well, economics. We need others trained in geomatics, leadership and communications. A Plant City campus allows you to benefit from home-grown leaders just as our research center in Wimauma helps keep Florida-grown strawberries on your local grocery store shelves.

If that teaching and research isn't there for agriculture, then Hillsborough County land will more and more often sprout with what we call "the last crop" — more houses.

There's a dynamic young staff at the center. I met Luis Peña-Levano, the new economics lecturer, who invited me to travel with him to his native Peru. I teased Debra Barry, who trains future teachers of agriculture, that there needs to be more UF/IFAS signs to go with the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences branding at the campus. The college's dean, Elaine Turner, was there, too, though, and took Debra's side.

I left Plant City with confidence in farming's future in Hillsborough County. I'm also proud of how the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has taken back a small piece of retail real estate for agricultural science.

With apologies to any shoppers who once got their groceries where our campus is now, there are plenty of places to buy food. There aren't enough places dedicated to producing future food producers.

With the help of those future economists, teachers, surveyors, and ag association leaders who come out of Plant City programs, Hillsborough County's farmers can continue to grow fruits and vegetables and turn less often to the last crop.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.