US (FL): ‘Plant whisperer’ helps keep produce lush, green and safe

Liz Felter gazes at the tomato plant and considers it quietly for a few seconds. Stroking the discolored leaves, she sticks two fingers in the soil and pushes the dirt down.

“My gut tells me it’s not Erwinia,” says Felter, a University of Florida IFAS Extension regional specialized agent. The visitor to the UF/IFAS Diagnostic Plant Clinic in Apopka merely nods as Felter continues.

“But I do think you planted too deep, and you need to pull them up a little. It could be rhizoctonia,” she says. “Give me a few days to run some tests and I’ll have an answer for you.”

Visitors to the plant clinic housed at the UF/IFAS Mid Florida Research and Education Center are mostly male farm managers, landscapers or nursery workers. But gender doesn’t matter when they turn to “the plant whisperer” for help.

“She is amazing with plants, knows everything about them,” said Michael Gutierrez, who manages Brook Hollow Hydro Farms, in Ocoee. “She is very personable, knowledgeable, a plant whisperer. And, if Liz can’t figure it out, she is plugged into a network of people who can solve the problem, and help us implement strategies to prevent future problems.”

Within minutes, Felter is on to the next assignment, as she races down a winding hallway to her office across from the clinic that she directs.

One of the few women in a once male-dominated industry, Felter sees a major change in the profession. “When I graduated with my master’s degree 35 years ago, there were four men for every one woman,” she said. “Now, the trend has reversed. There are four times as many women as men in my classes.”

Felter brings a unique set of skills to her job.

With a bachelor’s degree in environmental horticulture, and a Ph.D. in social sciences, Felter is well equipped to understand how people will adjust to new research, and adapt and use that research, she said. “It’s a unique combination that allows me to understand how people will respond to using good bugs to eat bad bugs, for example,” she said. “They either think it’s a great idea, or they wonder how they will use it in their system. I’m interested in the behavioral aspect.”

But her Extension work is all about plant production, food production in greenhouses and local food awareness.

In 2019, Felter will offer produce safety training workshops for local growers. “The workshop will help local growers be in compliance with the federal food safety modernization act requirements,” she said. “They will learn how to safely grow, harvest and process food for packaging. And, they will be able to track all the food so when there is a safety issue, growers can stop the tainted food from making it to market.”

In addition, Felter helps decision makers and policy makers work on ordinances that will be friendlier to urban ag producers. Many communities have antiquated definitions of farms on the books, and some leaders believe farming leads to more pollution, Felter said. “We need them to realize that someone growing hydroponic lettuce uses a contained system of nutrients, therefore no runoff occurs from their production site,” she said.

So, Felter will assist with a tour for local legislators and decision makers visiting farms in Seminole County to introduce them to what local production is available in the area.

“The goal,” said Felter, “Is to help residents in central Florida learn where their food comes from, and help legislators support urban agriculture with policy that works in the 21st century.”

Source: University of Florida (Beverly M. James)


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