Laurie Hurner grew up in a fifth-generation Florida citrus-growing family, and she and her sisters worked their farm in Highlands County.
“My parents had three daughters,” said Hurner, the director of University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension Highlands County and the county’s citrus agent. “We were all well-rounded.”
From their mom, the girls learned what Hurner calls “Southern Lady-isms,” including setting a proper dinner table and opening the house to guests for fried chicken and biscuits.
“My mother taught us graciousness beyond fault,” she said.
From their dad, they learned a solid work ethic.
“We learned to drive on the tractor,” Hurner said. They were so small that their dad would give them a wood block so they could reach the acceleration pedal to traverse the farm.
Their dad, Tim, not only grew citrus, he served twice as director of UF/IFAS Extension Highlands County. In fact, Tim Hurner was recently inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame.
Like father, like daughter, perhaps. But make no mistake: Hurner earned her stripes to become a UF/IFAS Extension county director.
Born in Avon Park, Hurner was raised in Sebring. She earned a bachelor’s degree in citrus and business from Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, and a master’s degree in agricultural education and communication from UF.
Along the way, Hurner worked as a UF/IFAS Extension agent in Palm Beach County; agricultural program manager for South Florida State College in Avon Park; assistant director of grower affairs at Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland, and finally, back to Highlands County as a citrus Extension agent in 2013.
She was promoted to county Extension director in 2016.
Hurner recalls with fondness the days when citrus was king in Florida and particularly in Highlands County. For many years, Highlands ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the state in the number of boxes of citrus harvested, Hurner said. But because of freezes and diseases such as citrus greening, that’s no longer the case. Even the Hurners lost their last grove in the 1989 freeze.
Her message to current citrus growers?
“It’s important for them to understand the production ramifications of greening,” Hurner said. “Greening challenges us to rethink how we grow citrus in Florida. Through the research of UF/IFAS scientists — working with growers — UF/IFAS has discovered solutions that have helped growers remain productive. Our faculty also have developed methods to help solve greening.”
UF/IFAS researchers are helping to ensure growers stay in business. Solutions include developing more greening-tolerant citrus rootstocks, scions and cultivars, more efficient irrigation and soil management.
Through her father’s experience, Hurner knows the history of UF/IFAS Extension agents who work directly with growers to improve their productivity.
“The value of the citrus program is the strength of our face-to-face relationships, and the importance of those relationships has remained steadfast,” Hurner said. “We have phenomenal relationships with our growers, whether they produce citrus or vegetables.”
Despite the citrus industry’s many ups and downs through the years, Hurner regrets nothing along her career journey. In fact, citrus practically runs in her blood.
“The Florida citrus industry has been so important to my success and my family’s success,” Hurner said. “I’ll never be able to repay this industry for what it’s done for my family.”