by JULIE B. MAGLIO
BROOKSVILLE, Fla.-- On Thursday October 10, University of Florida IFAS (Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences) Extension had an open house to celebrate the recent expansion of their facility located at 16110 Aviation Loop Dr, Brooksville, FL 34604.
They were able to acquire the additional space after AMskills, a manufacturing training program, moved out of the building.
The additional space provides them with a large conference room and a laboratory. There was a lot of work to be done to clean up the new space and build it out to meet their needs. IFAS agents and numerous master gardeners contributed to the clean up and renovation efforts.
Extension staff members Ashley Centola and Theresa Weglarz came up with the new layout of the space, and took it upon themselves to drive the renovations and aesthetics forward, including painting, re-purposing of furniture, etc. Three volunteers that really put in a lot of effort are Barb Hart, Connie Kuehner (both master gardener volunteers) and Sarge Dendy.
Nancy Moores, 4-H agent, explained that Sarge Dendy, with Theresa’s assistance, built the sea grass and aquaculture beds outside the facility using scrap wood. Sarge has worked tirelessly morning noon and night on the various construction projects. The seagrass grown at IFAS are sent to area schools where students continue to propagate the seagrass and then plant them out in Hernando Beach. Brittany Hall Scharf, Hernando County IFAS sea grant agent, runs the seagrass program.
Each IFAS agent that serves businesses and residents in the county spoke a little bit about what they do.
Nancy Moores, 4-H Youth Development Extension Agent, described the 4-H program. Each year 4-H members go to the state capitol and learn about the intricacies of democracy. In the 4-H program each student receives six or more hours of education each year. They serve around 3,000 children annually.
IFAS Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Scott Tayler explained that they partner with around 31 organizations in the county including United Way. He helps individuals and organizations with financial literacy training which includes a variety of topics from simply balancing a checkbook to preparing for retirement.
He says he can provide emergency financial assistance planning and states that typically it’s not so much of a resource problem as it is an education problem. He emphasized that residents of the county can receive free financial coaching through the master money mentor program made possible by a joint grant from University of Florida and Bank of America.
“Unfortunately bad decisions in our twenties can take us into our forties to fix,” says Taylor.
The Family and Consumer Sciences program has also assisted 10 homeless families this year secure an apartment or qualify for a mortgage.
Dr. William Lester is the Urban and Community Horticultural agent. He works with homeowners as well as school age children through programs at Pinegrove Elementary as well as homeschoolers. He is also involved with a multi-county septic and drainfield education program.
“I get to do a little bit of everything. I’m also the Master Gardener Program coordinator,” said Dr. Lester. He thanked the master gardeners for all their assistance in preparing the new space. Lester spoke about the vegetable garden that the master gardeners run at The Arc Nature Coast Neff Lake campus.
“I know they are well on their way to being able to raise a lot of vegetables over there and the residents really enjoy being involved in that,” he said.
“I also want to point out that the master gardeners, through the nursery where we raise and sell plants to the public, last year they put in a grand total of well over 6000 volunteer hours… which is over $150,000 in value to the community. We’re very proud of them.”
He explained that master gardeners will use the new lab in their training and in order to learn about diagnosing various problems. They also plan to look into providing CEU training for professionals.
Dr. Lester works very closely with Lilly Browning, Hernando County’s Family Friendly Landscaping program coordinator who conducts composting and rain barrel classes and a variety of other classes at the county’s libraries.
“They work hand in hand, making sure our homeowners are as educated as possible,” said Moores.
Brittany Hall Scharf is Hernando County’s Sea Grant Extension Agent.
“Now that we have this entire office, I’ve been working with Sarge to expand our systems out here,” she said referring to the tanks and planting beds outside of the facility.
“We have our salt marsh nursery- we have three species of salt marsh grasses in that nursery. We work with Chocochatti where the elementary kids will grow some of those grasses through the school year. We have some educational programs where they learn about our shrimping industry, the economics behind it; the importance of our wetlands and the wildlife that use it.”
She explained that at the end of the school year, they work with Mike Singer, the county’s conservation lands specialist to replace Brazilian pepper and Lead trees with the native marsh grasses.
She thanked Hernando County Environmental Land Protectors and Sarge for the newly installed aquaponics system. She explained that they partner with the Florida Bass Conservation Center in Webster who supplies them with catfish twice a year. IFAS then raises them in the aquaponics tanks and will be used to stock ponds here in Hernando County. They host a kids fishing clinic as well.
In one of the tanks they are growing eelgrass thanks to a partnership with Duke Energy. The eel grass will be planted in the Weeki Wachee River.
There are some floating rafts too, where master gardeners are growing herbs and veggies they hope to be able to donate to the Dawn Center.
Another tank raises mosquito fish to be used in 4-H cattle troughs. She explained that mosquito fish are used in their salt marsh system for biological control.
Currently underway is the horseshoe crab monitoring program. They are tagging female horseshoe crabs to monitor where they nest.
Through a University of Florida grant, UF students will educate boat ramp users about the shallow nearby seagrass beds and best practices to prevent their destruction. Our scallop population is highly dependent on healthy seagrass beds.
Matt Smith is the Multi-County Agent specializing in Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems. He is out in the field the majority of the day. He remarked that Hernando County is a special place because we have a nice urban area, but there is still great farming around. He said the most recent USDA report he’s seen stated that $23 million in products come out of Hernando County agriculture.
“Y’all have really good blueberry growers here, vegetable growers, amazing u-pick operations like JG Ranch,” said Smith. He also mentioned Florida Sun Hops, the largest hops grower in the state of Florida, which is located in Hernando County.
He teaches about the financial aspects of farming as well as food safety. Smith works with growers to tackle any problem they are experiencing on their farm.
“Anytime a grower has an issue- they have an insect they can’t ID or problems with irrigation, calibration, identifying diseases, I come out there and help them find a solution. If I don’t know the answer, that’s okay because I have partnerships with the rest of the university,” said Smith.
“I work with specialists at research stations all around the state. I’ve brought a lot of specialists to our area to help out with hard to decipher problems.”
“Having this expansion here in the building has been really nice because whenever I am here, it’s either teaching, diagnostics or meeting one on one with growers.”
He’s also involved in the new farm to school program in Hernando County. On Tuesday Oct. 14 the lunch served at Challenger K-8 was grown entirely by local farmers.
“It’s the first concrete step in really getting that system in place,” remarked Smith.
Nancy Moores stressed the importance of community partnerships. “Extension is really a partnership from the beginning with our roots as a land grant university program. We’re bringing in money, we’re bringing in people and of course we’re outputting education.”