Keeping Ag on the Table


Jack Payne
Jack Payne

It wasn’t the dress shoes and the tie Stacy Strickland wore that garnered him the respect of the farmer he visited in Brooksville last month.

It was the bullwhip.

Strickland knows the farmers he serves as the University of Florida’s Extension director for Hernando and Sumter counties. So he knew that even though U-pick tomato, strawberry, and blueberry farmer Jeff Casey said his shoulder was hurting, he wouldn’t be able to resist a friendly challenge.

Strickland stepped into a dusty row of strawberries in his Rockport wingtips and snapped off a few lashes. Jeff immediately grabbed for the whip and jerked out a series of loud cracks. Then, they went back to talking berries.

An hour later, Strickland trudged in his dusty shoes into the office of Valerie Pianta, Hernando County economic development manager. No bullwhip this time. He visited to get an update on construction and new tenants at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport & Technology Center.

Strickland recently moved the UF/IFAS Hernando County Extension office to the Center, which features air and rail access.

Stacy Strickland and Jeff Casey
Stacy Strickland and Jeff Casey

It puts Extension geographically at the center of Hernando’s future economy. Strickland’s vision for Hernando includes using the 7,000-foot runway to fly local agricultural products to markets and challenging Miami’s near monopoly as an agricultural shipping hub.

That could mean Hernando-Sumter-area flowers being sent to big U.S. markets. Or it could be livestock sent to the Caribbean. Because UF/IFAS Extension taps into such a wide range of university knowledge and cultivates so many local relationships, Strickland is able to dispatch a livestock agent to goat farms while he seeks resources and experts that could one day connect those farmers with foreign markets.

Strickland succeeds on the basis of relationships formed by getting out of the office. On a recent day he addressed a chamber of commerce breakfast meeting to highlight the economic contribution of agriculture in Hernando County, brought the whip and the farming advice to JG Ranch and met with Pianta.

That was all before noon. By lunchtime, he was at the Rising Sun Bistro & Market in downtown Brooksville, visiting with owner Catherine Reeves as he munched on a Philly cheesesteak. She greeted Strickland by reminding him that her daughter grew up in 4-H – another Extension program.

Strickland will continue to advise producers like Casey on how to irrigate his crops, which plants could be harmful to his cattle and what the latest pests and diseases are to watch out for.

Strickland is also an economic development leader. Hernando County is looking to diversify its economy by focusing on primary industries such as manufacturing, distribution, and back-office operations. Strickland aims to keep ag at the table in the conversation about that vision.

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.

By Jack Payne