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August 17, 2017

President plants seeds for ag commitment at citrus event

New FGCU President Mike Martin got a chance to spend an evening back on his own educational farm Aug. 16 when he addressed members of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association and Florida Citrus Mutual at Alico Arena.

FGCU President Mike Martin, far right, with (from left) Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus; Ron Hamel, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association; U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney; FGCU mascot Azul; and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

The occasion was the 2017 Citrus Celebration sponsored by those organizations and hosted by FGCU. The event culminated a day in which U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was introduced firsthand to Florida’s signature industry with a grove tour and discussion of the growers’ challenges, most notably the crop-damaging disease known as “greening.” Among others who joined Martin and Perdue in addressing the crowd of about 500 on the main arena floor were: Florida Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial hopeful Adam Putnam; U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-17th District; Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson; and Ken Kavanagh, FGCU’s director of athletics, who welcomed the crowd to “Dunk City.”

For Martin, who took over as FGCU’s fourth president this summer, his first significant public address since becoming top Eagle was a chance to revisit one of the earlier stops in his higher-education journey almost 20 years ago: as the University of Florida’s vice president for agriculture and natural resources from 1998-2004. So it was little surprise when he opened his evening-ending speech with the declaration that one of his intentions is to make FGCU “an institution that serves agriculture.”

And the way Martin sees it, “serving agriculture” in the new millennium means being at the cutting edge of technology.

“Governors and legislators and sometimes commissioners and a variety of other folks will say we really want to build a high-tech industry,” Martin told the crowd. “Now what’s fascinating, when you stop and think about it, is that there is no more high-tech industry anywhere than in agriculture. The biotechnology taking place in agriculture is astounding, and now with the confluence of other technologies, this is the highest-tech industry you’re likely to see anywhere, and it will solve the problems of greening and others through the application of high-tech science.”

Rachel Smith, Miss Florida Citrus 2017 and a University of Florida graduate student, talks with officers of the Florida Association of the Future Farmers of America in Alico Arena.
Rachel Smith, Miss Florida Citrus 2017 and a University of Florida graduate student, talks with officers of the Florida Association of the Future Farmers of America in Alico Arena.

To that end, Martin made a commitment to the citrus growers and producers in attendance. “One of the things we’re going to do at Florida Gulf Coast is begin to develop some programs in concert with IFAS (the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences), and in concert with other partners in the region, the private sector and the advisers we have at hand, to help us dream of what we can do — for two fundamental and irrevocable reasons,” Martin said. “To give every student in this state a chance at a career in a powerful, interesting and progressive industry, and in the process, help advance the state’s economy and social and cultural development.”

Perdue, a member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet and a former Georgia governor who visited Southwest Florida at the invitation of Rooney, said he was incredibly impressed by the “optimism of the growers and producers” he met here. “I see an industry helping itself with dedication and determination, and the USDA will be fighting with you every step of the way,” Perdue said.

Rooney, who said he didn’t know anything about life on the farm while “growing up on a golf course in North Palm Beach,” had a special message for those in attendance, the interests of whom he’s tasked with representing in Washington, D.C.

“Thanks for making me understand what it means to be a grower,” Rooney said.