Florida Specialty Crop Foundation has a busy year

Sonia Tighe heads the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation

Sonia Tighe has her hands full – and she loves it. The executive director of the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation has been busy coordinating nine recently awarded U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grants funded through the 2014 Farm Bill. The grants were awarded to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to enhance the competitiveness of Florida specialty crops.

In all, the state awarded more than $4.5 million in grants to be used for 34 Florida research projects, including those nine to be conducted by the foundation in partnership with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, USDA and the Florida Ag Financial Management Conference.

“This year we’re collaborating with multiple research centers and locations, focusing on pest and disease research in blueberries, peaches, green beans, tomatoes, peppers and cucurbits,” Tighe said. “Additionally, we are working on marketing research, educational financial programming and labor issues. Cooperating with our research partners is a very important focus for the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation.”

In addition to the nine new grants, the foundation has 11 other Specialty Crop Block Grants that it is cooperating on from prior years.

The nine new grants aim to:

  • Increase sales and knowledge of Florida blueberries’ nutritional benefits by identifying barriers to marketing and promoting a cohesive image of Florida-grown blueberries through a survey of producers and distributors ($157,559).
  • Increase crop yields of Florida snap beans by researching and identifying bean cultivars that will be resistant against Bean Red Node and sharing this research with seed producers and the public ($13,477).
  • Increase yields of cucurbits (watermelon, cucumber, squash and cantaloupe) by developing a decision-support system that integrates the three models for managing foliar disease ($203,070).
  • Increase strawberry crop yields by evaluating crop-termination techniques and weed management options for cucurbits and eggplants double-cropped with strawberries ($157,897).
  • Increase crop pollination, and thus yields, by preventing the colonization of barn owl nesting boxes by Africanized Honey Bees. The research also would preserve a threatened wildlife species and a widely recognized integrated pest management program for sustainable rodent control ($114,500).
  • Extend the postharvest quality and safety of Florida fresh market blueberries and peaches by conducting postharvest time/temperature studies at grower/shipper facilities and compare with those necessary to implement proposed Best Temperature Management Practices ($286,403).
  • Help a specialty crop employer determine whether the H-2A guest-worker program provides a viable solution to address labor needs by evaluating labor shortages and estimate the economic ramifications of that shortfall ($93,125).
  • Increase tomato and green bean yields by determining the biology of novel tomato virus and fill gaps in basic knowledge of Tobacco streak virus ($217,234).
  • Increase the scope and effectiveness of the Florida Agricultural Financial Management Conference ($50,000).

Landing numerous specialty crop grants isn’t the only accomplishment of Tighe and the foundation this year.

The Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, focuses on research, education and philanthropy in the Florida specialty crop industry. Since it was founded in 1991, it has raised $7.7 million through industry support, government grants and special events. It also administers programs that seek to develop future industry leaders, care for children of farmworkers, and more.

One of those programs, the FFVA Emerging Leader Development Program, is in its fourth year. The program seeks to develop the leadership abilities and industry knowledge of young people with a promising future in the specialty crop field. Class 4 members are John Alderman – Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Shine Taylor – DuPont Crop Protection, Dustin Grooms – Fancy Farms, Paul Miller – Pioneer Growers Co-op, Meghan Pasken – Glades Crop Care, John Beuttenmuller – Florida Foundation Seed Producers Inc., Nathan Decker – Monsanto, Matt Griffin – Lipman Produce, Teddy McAvoy – SynTech Research, Dan Bott – Premier Citrus Management.

Class 4 of the FFVA Emerging Leader Development Program

The class members were introduced at FFVA’s 71st annual convention in September. They recently enjoyed a two-day learning experience about the work FFVA does on behalf of its members.

“The class always appreciates the session in the FFVA offices because they interact with every director to learn more about pest, environmental and water issues; public affairs; labor; the New Varieties Management and Development Corp. and Florida Citrus Packers Association; and most importantly, the overall structure and scope of FFVA and all the activities in which we are involved,” Tighe said. “Some of the class members remarked that they had no idea how far-reaching and expansive the work of FFVA is.”

The class will travel to production areas in Florida, meet with legislators in Tallahassee, and travel to California to learn about challenges producers there face. ELDP class members must be age 25 to 40, part of an FFVA member’s family or company, and must be working in or pursuing a career in Florida specialty crop agriculture. A class of eight to 10 members is selected each year.

The Foundation, in partnership with the University of Florida, recently received specialty crop block grant funding to increase the sales and knowledge of Florida blueberries’ nutritional benefits.

The foundation fundraises for several initiatives. At its recent 15th annual Benefit Auction, which took place during FFVA’s convention, the foundation raised $17,040 to support the ELDP as well as the George F. Sorn Scholarship, which awards scholarships to outstanding students who are children of farmworkers, and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association.

The foundation also helps farmworkers’ children by participating in the RCMA Christmas Card Project. Each year, children in RCMA’s programs contribute artwork for the cards, the sales of which raised more than $27,000 last year. Including matching funds, RCMA took in over $200,000. And the foundation partners with Bayer CropScience to provide grower incentives for the Farmers Feeding Florida program, which allows growers to provide wholesome yet unmarketable food to the families of RCMA children.

The foundation also presents the annual Agricultural Labor Relations Forum. The popular event educates growers, shippers, processors and other employers on the complex and always changing regulatory and legislative issues regarding farmworkers. The forum marked its 40th year in Orlando in September by offering seminars on eight topics of interest.

“It is really a privilege to manage the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation and to see the very positive impacts that can be made with our multitude of programs,” Tighe said. “Working with the ELDP program has been a highlight of my career. It is very exciting to see the talented young professionals who are interested in Florida agriculture and to see their experience and education grow as a result of this program.”

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