By Frank Giles
While the land-grant universities come to mind first when it comes to agriculture, other schools are serving the farm sector as well. Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) in Fort Myers is one of those schools and is focused on the business side of agriculture.
FGCU has its agricultural credentials based on a farming enterprise with deep roots in the area — Alico, Inc. The school has chaired professorships in honor of Ben Hill Griffin Jr., Ben Hill Griffin III and Bernard Lester. The Center for Agribusiness was established at FGCU in 2019 and offers several courses that students can take to receive a full-time minor in agribusiness.
ENLIGHTENING A NEW GENERATION
According to Fritz Roka, the director of the Center for Agribusiness, enrollment has grown to nearly 200 students. Prior to joining FGCU, Roka worked with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). He says he enjoyed his years with UF/IFAS, but the change in focus to the business aspects of agriculture has been rewarding.
“I didn’t fully appreciate how little the public knows about agriculture. But being on a campus with a very small percentage of people who come from a rural background, much less an agricultural background, you see that,” Roka says. “When you tell these students we have an agribusiness minor and ask them what agribusiness means to them, the responses were things like driving a tractor and picking citrus. At that moment, we realized we had some educational work to do because agribusiness is the whole supply chain. While farming is the foundation of agribusiness, you need a whole bunch of folks supplying inputs and expertise to transfer it from a raw commodity into a finished consumer good.”
Roka says the FGCU Center for Agribusiness is designed to educate future leaders in various parts of the supply chain that bring food from the farm to the masses. The university has robust outreach to high school students as well. On Nov. 16, FGCU will host its fourth Ag Forum to educate high school students about the agribusiness minor and the great job opportunities in food and farming.
FOCUSED ON WATER
Florida’s seashores, lakes, rivers and springs make it a unique spot in the world. In Southwest Florida, water is an area of intense focus in recent years as various sectors work to protect the resource. Agriculture is in the middle of these discussions and debates.
FCGU has established The Water School, recognizing the critical role water plays in the region. A new 114,000-square-foot teaching and research facility houses The Water School, which opened its doors to students in the fall of this year. It is home to world-class laboratories set to study water.
“Southwest Florida is surrounded by water, with Lake Okeechobee to the east, important estuaries and rivers to the north, the Gulf of Mexico to the west, and the Florida Everglades and Florida Bay to the south,” says Greg Tolley, executive director of The Water School. “The region is also impacted by water-related hazards such as flooding, droughts, sea level rise, hurricanes, and water security in some of our marginalized communities. Most recently, Hurricane Ian struck the region. Southwest Florida’s economy is a water economy — from tourism to the resort and hospitality industry, to real estate, to agriculture, to ecotourism.”
Tolley notes there are other institutions that focus on water, such as University of Florida’s Water Institute, but no other institute is as interdisciplinary as The Water School. “The Water School brings together faculty from across academic disciplines to plan far into the future and across geographic boundaries to ensure that we do not continue to create unintended consequences from environmental solutions that are not well thought out and well implemented,” he says.
The Water School has four areas of focus for teaching and research. These include coastal resilience, ecosystem integrity, restoration and remediation, and human health and wellbeing. Tolley says all four areas are integral to a healthy environment and vibrant economy that will ensure Southwest Florida remains a thriving community.
Visit the university’s website at FGCU.edu for more information.