Few residents may think of the University of Florida and a team of researchers when they look at their trees, shrubs, or vegetable gardens. But, UF scientists’ research on pests, urban landscaping and local food systems has helped central Florida stay green.

Now, the Mid Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, will celebrate 50 years of groundbreaking work. The center will host an event starting at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 7.

The center has a rich history in foliage research, but has expanded into alternative crops, Florida Friendly landscaping and urban food systems, said Roger Kjelgren, director of the UF/IFAS Mid Florida Research and Education Center.

“Lifestyle, or urban, horticulture has a $21 billion impact on the state economy,” Kjelgren said. “The industry provides more than 200,000 jobs, so it’s very important to nurture lifestyle horticulture as central Florida becomes more urbanized.”

The center was established in 1968, then combined with research centers in Apopka, Leesburg and Sanford in 2000. “Each of those centers was formed to address concerns of growers and homeowners,” Kjelgren said. “But in order to better meet industry-wide needs, the three centers were combined to enable researchers to more easily share information, and provide a central location for central Florida growers and producers.”

Today, nearly 50 staff, students and 11 faculty focus on research to address the needs of Floridians, which includes integrated pest management, water conservation, agricultural economics, plant pathology and genetics, Kjelgren said. “All of our work is focused on maintaining a greener and healthier lifestyle,” he said.

In foliage, the center has played a crucial role in developing biological pest controls, breeding and production of tiny starter plants and handling techniques that helped the industry become world renowned. “For example, we recently aided two dynamic and rapidly growing companies in Apopka so that they are taking the industry global,” Kjelgren said.

MREC researchers’ work has helped the landscape industry produce live plants to enhance gardens, front yards and parks, Kjelgren said. MREC partners with the UF/IFAS Florida Friendly Landscaping program to help consumers choose the right plant for the right place with appropriate pest control and a minimal use of irrigation and fertilizer to keep plants healthy, he said.

Researchers at the center also study medicinal plants, which flavor our beverages and fill our medicine cabinets, Kjelgren said. “UF/IFAS scientists showed that hops can grow in Florida, much to the delight of the growing craft beer industry,” he said. Currently, scientists are studying how to grow skullcap, a small, native herb; butterfly tea, a vine with beautiful blue flowers that can be used for healthy teas; and yacon, a daisy-like herb with a tasty sweet tuber that has many medicinal properties.

In urban food systems, MREC scientists are on the front lines of the trend to grow and eat more locally grown and healthier foods. “Most of our food is grown far away and distributed through a centralized system that few know or understand,” he said. “But urban food systems are a decentralized, a more knowable, local, organically grown and distributed, healthy food from diverse sources. It can come from small suburban farms to abandoned urban lots to indoor hydroponics in city centers.

“MREC is expanding its focus to study ways to reduce barriers and add incentives that will promote urban food production and distribution.”

The center’s researchers look forward to another 50 years of helping central Florida become greener and healthier, Kjelgren said. “Our research and sharing of information through UF/IFAS Extension service increases the quality of life of all Floridians,” he said.

Source: University of Florida (Beverly M. James)