While the scenery may have changed, the work remains the same for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) citrus faculty and Extension agents.
“The coronavirus pandemic has altered the daily routine but not our mission to provide research and educational service to the citrus industry,” said Michael Rogers, director of the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center and statewide citrus coordinator. “We are on the job, albeit mostly from our home offices, but still working!”
State and federal safer-at-home guidelines and social distancing are challenging for researchers and agents used to working in teams and directly with growers through seminars, grove visits or one-on-one consultations.
But, in the land-grant tradition of finding a way, faculty are using technology, creative communications and even old-fashioned methods to get the job done.
Laurie Hurner has been around citrus all her life and thought she had seen it all. So not much throws her, even a pandemic. She’s still working full days now from her home with rare trips to the closed Highlands County Extension office only when absolutely necessary.
Hurner is the communications connection to citrus growers in her region with updates and news from local, state and national regulatory research agencies like the U.S.Department of Agriculture, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and UF/IFAS. In addition to a monthly newsletter, she regularly sends out email blasts with the information as soon as it hits her desk.
“I am still providing support to individuals who are renewing their pesticide use licenses,” Hurner said. She reviews and grades exams that individuals take to earn continuing education units that are required to renew their licenses. And she is still consulting with individual growers who are calling and sending her photos with questions about pests, nutrition and grove management concerns. “Growers’ questions and challenges have not stopped because of the virus and neither have we,” Hurner explained.
Fred Gmitter thought he might catch up on some reading and writing while working from his home office during the pandemic. That was a fleeting concept.
“I am working longer and harder than ever with these new conditions,” explained Gmitter. “I am not complaining, it is just that we now work through lengthy Zoom meetings with researchers from across the country trying to move our research forward and help each other out.”
Many face-to-face meetings are replaced with marathon video conferencing, often across multiple time zones and with multiple participants. “We are collaborating on journal articles and sharing results online, which is very different than what we have done for years,” said Gmitter. “It’s a change, but we are still achieving results.”
Gmitter’s team at CREC is working through data collected prior to the stay-at-home directives using their home computers and trying to engage with colleagues as best they can. Lab assistants have been approved to collect samples from groves in Fort Pierce and Lake Alfred for research projects focused on understanding genetic tolerance to citrus greening and in a pilot study to learn more about crop load management for Bingo and other mandarin varieties.
An important genome sequencing project is advancing with the UF/IFAS team analyzing data collected by their California partners. This is a huge task working with vast amounts of data, but Gmitter worries that eventually he and his team will need to get back into the greenhouses to generate additional data that is critical to the project.
“We are all being challenged to rethink how we do what we have always done but under new, important safety constraints,” Gmitter explained. “I am confident we will find a way; it is, after all, what scientists do.”
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