Clay maps future of crops and communities

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GREEN COVE SPRINGS – In Clay County, there’s a new alternative emerging to the tired old urban-rural clash.

A community with a proud history of farming is turning to 21st century agriculture to embrace commerce without sacrificing culture. Clay County is looking at old things in new ways as it determines its destiny.

On a quarter acre in Green Cove Springs, a farmer is trying to become one of the first in Florida to successfully grow hops to supply proliferating microbreweries with homegrown ingredients. A newly arrived 4-H agent hopes to punch up the cows-and-sows program by giving kids a go with farm-bots that can plant, water and fertilize crops. The fairgrounds have potential to bring more concerts and festivals – and money – to the community in between the county fair and rodeos.

Clay County government has lots of in-house expertise to make these efforts more likely to succeed. In fact, one of its departments is a portal to the 5,000 faculty experts of the state’s flagship public university.

The UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Clay County Extension office is connecting that aspiring hops farmer with an environmental horticulture assistant professor based in a research center west of Orlando.

Extension just hired the 4-H agent, a Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering, as one of the state’s first STEM 4-H agents. Her job will be to infuse science, technology, engineering and mathematics into 4-H programming. Anne Elise Creamer wants the next generation of 4-Hers to consider careers in agriculture that include law, business, engineering, and laboratory science in addition to farm management.

Extension also brought in experts from the UF College of Design, Construction & Planning’s School of Architecture to help develop a plan for the fairgrounds’ future.

As the “local” university in all 67 counties through the Extension service, UF has its own aspirations. Among them is to help communities define what they want their futures to be. The next decade will be a momentous one for Clay and an opportunity for UF/IFAS to advance its mission to promote healthy Floridians, healthy communities and healthy economies.

Change doesn’t have to cleave Clay County into rural versus urban camps. With proper planning, the First Coast Expressway under construction can be an economic lifeline for a community that still uses some of its land to raise cattle, mules, horses, timber, blueberries – and maybe even hops.

It will take a little planning and expertise to keep agriculture in the mix. The expressway will at the least bring in a lot of newcomers who can use it to commute more easily to jobs in Jacksonville and St. Augustine.

It may also bring in more folks who buy 10 acres with a vision of becoming a part-time Clay County farmer, and ask, “Now what?” UF/IFAS Extension agriculture agent Luke Harlow is out on the grazing pastures and farms of all sizes to bring the full expertise of UF to that question.

What the Extension office is not is a satellite ivory tower. Instead, it’s the clubhouse where the Clay County Cattlemen’s Association meets every month. It’s where 90 local master gardeners have learned to beautify their yards and communities with Florida-Friendly Landscaping. It’s where 4-H summer campers come to learn how to cook, identify plants, canoe and learn about insects.

To become reality, plans require investments. One of the toughest conversations a community can have is how to cover the upfront costs. County officials tapped UF/IFAS Clay County Extension Director Bradley Burbaugh to walk that tightrope as facilitator of a recent discussion of what kind of taxes would be a good fit for Clay.

Burbaugh has also led trainings for 500 county employees on how to become better managers so that every public dollar delivers the best possible service to the taxpayers who pay their salaries.

In a way, all of Clay is asking “Now what?” Knowing that the community is going to look a whole lot different in 10 years, Clay residents are asking themselves how they want it to look.

With our long history in agriculture and embrace of technology, UF/IFAS has a perspective that brings together tradition and innovation. Clay is at a crossroads in which proper planning could help bring together those two things as well.

We at UF/IFAS know better than to tell you how to use your land or what your dreams should be. But in public higher education, we’re in the business of developing potential. We want to be your partner by encouraging you to make your dreams as big as Camp Blanding.

Burbaugh, with his academic training in leadership and communications and his experience walking rows as an ag agent, is comfortable in the barn and the boardroom. If it’s the will of the people of Clay County, we hope Burbaugh and his UF team can help Clay achieve a future with plenty of both.

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. Contact Jack at jackpayne@ufl.edu.

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