Interest in UF plant breeding program dwindles, concerning farmers and scientists

From the Florida Keys to the Panhandle, Florida's agriculture is as diverse as it is fruitful.

Plant breeders at the University of Florida are working to help farmers grow fruitful crops. Vance Whitaker says 50 different plant species throughout the state are constantly improving, thanks to the hard work of the UF plant breeding program.

"From mangos to peanuts and strawberries to citrus and everything in between," Whitaker said. "I think people generally do not appreciate how much plant breeding is going on and how much that is ultimately affecting them."

Whitaker develops new and better-tasting strawberries at the UF Research and Education Center in Wimauma.

"For a millennium, man has been choosing the best seed to plant the next year. Plant breeding is just a modern form of that," he explained.

Whitaker uses scientific data to figure out which varieties of strawberries give consumers a better taste sensation.

Strawberries produced by the Univ. of Florida's plant breeding program are a favorite of retailers and customers.

"Supermarkets and chains that really want to get that flavor will request that specific variety," he explained.

He says every tasty bite of a Florida strawberry is a culmination of decades of research. But as important as the work is, interest in plant breeding is declining.

With fewer students entering the field, competition for bright, budding talent is stiff. That's why the University of Florida has created a new website hoping to lure more students into the program.

"We want the best students coming to the University of Florida to get trained in plant breeding here," says Whitaker.

The website details every crop that is part of the UF plant-breeding program. It also follows researchers like Sam Hutton, who works with Florida's tomato farmers.

He's constantly striving for higher yield and better disease resistance in his crops. West Coast Tomato in Duette is planting one of his varieties this season.

"If it does well, it’s great for me. That may become one of their new varieties that they start to produce. If it doesn’t do well, that tells me something also. I need to go back and do a better job breeding for one characteristic or another," said Hutton.

There is a lot on the line with this long-term research and its results.

"If all of our retail markets, all of our food service industry switch over to imported products, then we’ve got nothing else in Florida. That’s a lot of jobs that dry up and then where is your food coming from?" questioned Hutton.