I’m thinking of pitching an idea for a new major in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS): Pre-Agri-Starts.
Earlier this year, I visited plant tissue culture supplier Agri-Starts in Apopka and met Johnny Hoblick. I was eager to connect with a CALS graduate. By the time he had introduced me to his co-workers, we had our own CALS alumni chapter started: Hoblick; David Lawson, 2011; Andre Farrell, 2016; Libby Clark, 2017; Kevin Dewansingh, 2019. Robert Kizer, 2014, is also a Gator alumnus (UF but not CALS).
Johnny came straight out of our University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Horticultural Sciences Department with a minor in environmental horticulture in 2016 and into a job at the plant tissue culture provider in Apopka.
That wasn’t an accident. Our students connect with industry early. For Johnny, it was his propagation class field trip to Agri-Starts that got him hooked. He knew immediately this was what he wanted to do, and he joined the company just months after graduation.
Environmental Horticulture Chair Dean Kopsell regularly takes students to FNGLA’s Tropical Plant International Expo and The Landscape Show. And Agri-Starts President Ty Strode’s active involvement in the department’s advisory board delivers valuable industry feedback that keeps our teaching, research and Extension relevant.
It’s absolutely essential we continue to get this feedback. During the last legislative session, we heard a great deal of concern about the employability of graduates in certain majors. Because of the ongoing relationships of Kopsell, Ty and Agri-Starts founder Randy Strode, and FNGLA, we consistently produce what CALS Dean Elaine Turner calls society-ready graduates.
We are also determined to do our part to fill a national talent gap in production agriculture. A Purdue University-United States Department of Agriculture study forecasts 59,400 job openings in food, agriculture, renewable resources and the environment annually for the next few years and only 36,100 annual graduates from relevant university programs.
UF/IFAS alone can’t supply the entire industry’s workers, so we’re partnering with Randy through an endowment he established to train existing green industry employees. The Green Skills Production Endowment aims to offer basic training classes for bench-level workers in soils, water-holding capacity, plant nutrition, pest and pathogen identification and more.
In true land-grant fashion, Kopsell hopes to implement this vital Extension function by making it an educational opportunity for CALS students who may teach the classes. The experience would develop in these students the communications skills, teamwork and synthesis of information you and others say your new hires need in addition to technical skills.
The plant science major is also coming into its own as a way to supply industry with a talent pool of all-around competency through classes in horticulture, environmental horticulture, plant pathology, entomology and even economics.
I was serious about that alumni club. As we emerge from the pandemic restrictions, I plan to jumpstart alumni groups through visits across the state. I’ve told Johnny that I’ll be asking for his help to assemble an Orlando group, starting with his co-workers at Agri-Starts.
With the help of Johnny, Randy and Ty, we plan to keep our talent pipeline flowing. We can expand the community of students integrated into industry and alumni that give us insight into what the next generation of Gators needs to help you succeed.
Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).