Jack Payne: Mid-Florida Research and Education Center Commemorates 50th Anniversary

December 5, 2018

Editor's Note: This month’s column is adapted from a speech delivered at the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center’s 50th anniversary celebration on Nov. 7.

Fifty years ago, a group of people a lot like us gathered right here, and they dedicated this research center. One of the speakers that day said the center, “represents the hopes, dreams, and active efforts of many people.”

The names have changed. Even the name of Apopka’s mayor has changed. The late John Land held the office for 61 years!

Half a century ago, this place was called the Ridge Ornamental Horticultural Laboratory. Back then, the IFAS name -- the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences -- was still so new that it was led by its founder, E.T. York. He was the speaker I referred to, and he took special care to recognize a man named Jack Christmas.

Christmas was president of what was then known as “FNGA” and one of the driving forces behind the creation of this center. We don’t know what Jack said that day, but we know what E.T. York said.

What Dr. York said that day was timeless. This center still represents the hopes, dreams, and active efforts of many people. A half century of history teaches us that although the names change, the deep relationship among IFAS, the ornamental plant industry, and legislators supportive of public science has not changed.

One of those legislators was Bryan Nelson, now the mayor of Apopka. He was so supportive of IFAS during his time in the Florida House of Representatives that we gave him our Legislative Leader Award in 2014.

Bryan has continued to support IFAS since he left Tallahassee. In fact, he joined me in participating in some vital alternative crop research. In this case, the “lab” was the First Magnitude Brewery in Gainesville. He graciously agreed to field-test hops grown right here by Brian Pearson. Mayor Nelson, if I recall correctly, our conclusion was that further research was needed!

This center is the gift that E.T. York, Jack Christmas, the Orange County Board of Commissioners, Mayor John Land, the Legislature, and what was then known as the Florida Board of Regents bequeathed to us.

In some ways, it was so long ago that this center started. When the Ridge Ornamental Horticultural Laboratory opened, there was no Disney World. There was no SeaWorld. There was no Orlando International Airport.

And if you really want to get down to it, before this lab opened there weren’t even any flush toilets in this immediate area. This center got built in what was then the middle of nowhere, and we put in utility lines that made possible the construction of surrounding communities that have tapped into those lines.

Before fantasy and visitors from far-away places made their arrival here, we put this center to work on real-world problems for the people who will still be here after the vacation or the convention is over.

Together, we continue that work. I am so proud to have E.T. York’s job and so grateful to have inherited such a great organization to lead. I’m proud, too, that UF/IFAS Wedgworth Leadership Institute alumnus Will Womack now stands in Jack Christmas’s shoes as president of what we now call FNGLA.

FNGLA continues to claim this center as its scientific home, to make the case that it’s every bit as crucial to their industry as it was in 1968. They are even having their Board of Directors meeting here this afternoon.

Roger will tell you a little more about these men later, but two other important people are worth noting in the history of this center. Charles Conover ran this center for 26 years, and it was under his leadership that centers in Apopka, Leesburg, and Sanford were united here in what became the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center.

Robbie Roberson is a longtime FNGLA member who championed this center for years in Tallahassee to get legislative support for MFREC.

We still have great supporters. Randy Strode, for example. He’s been a tireless fund-raiser in support of the greenhouse industry through the Green Skills Production Endowment.

Dr. York could have been speaking about Randy, or Bryan, or Will, or Ben Bolusky, when he said at the dedication:

“This support was generated primarily because of the economic significance of the environmental industries which this laboratory will serve and because of the recognized importance of research in helping these industries to deal effectively with the problems which they confront – to help these industries become more efficient – to help them grow and prosper.”

Dr. York even pitched an IFAS publication that day called “Miracle in the Sunshine” about the fantastic development of Florida agriculture in the face of such great obstacles.

Dr. York said, “The phenomenal advances in American agriculture resulting in a large measure from programs of agricultural research, represents one of mankind’s greatest success stories.”

We’re the heirs to that story, and at events like this we get to tell it, so our heirs can add chapters to it 50 years from now.

So yes, the names have changed. The support of the FNGLA, the Legislature, and the remarkable men and women who work in this building has not.

The physical location we celebrate is not the achievement. The great achievements are the relationships that built this place and have endured for decades. As Dr. York said, “Bricks and mortar are meaningless without people and programs to put these facilities to use.”

Today, it’s in the hands of Roger Kjelgren. Roger has brought visionary leadership to the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center since I hired him two years ago. It’s his job to make more history here. 

First, though, I’d like to end where I started, by paying tribute to a great relationship. The chief steward of the UF/IFAS-FNGLA relationship is, of course, here today. Because Ben Bolusky is always with us. He’s with us at the research forums, the Urban Landscape Summits, the Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology advisory board meetings, and in Tallahassee when we need a friend.

Ben has led FNGLA for more than 20 years now, and in that time, he’s seen a few Roger Kjelgrens, a number of Brian Pearsons, and even a few Jack Paynes. Others will hold Ben’s title, but there won’t be another like him.

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.

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