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NFREC Quincy—100 Years of Service and Adaptation

It was the summer of 1978. I had just graduated with a BS degree in Agronomy from the Ohio State University. I had a graduate assistantship in hand to pursue a MS degree at the University of Florida. But my future major professor, Dr. Fred Rhoads, was not located in Gainesville. He was stationed at an odd-sounding place called the Agricultural Research and Education Center – Quincy. Whatever! I was heading to Florida for grad school!

I arrived in June. It was hot, sticky, and buggy with a culture that was foreign to me. Grad students were a rarity at RECs in those days. I was put in the “grad student house,” a building with no air conditioning and bugs you could put a saddle on. Hence, I started my grad student career in the soybean, corn, and tomato field plots of AREC-Quincy.

Fred Rhoads, left, with AREC-Quincy Director Willis Chapman, 1978. Dr. Rhoads passed away September 10, 2021 at age 85.

I spent four more summers in Quincy, working my field projects. It was a different world back then. No personal computers, everything hand-written. Still no air conditioning in the grad house. The rustic experience is something I’ll never forget. But since my tie to UF/IFAS has continued unbroken since then, I’ve been able to follow the amazing evolution of AREC-Quincy.

Fast forward about 40 years. The North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy is celebrating its 100th Anniversary. Like most institutions that have been around that long, its got a story to tell about  change and adaptation. To give you an idea of how much things have changed, when the center was first established, it was called the Tobacco Experiment Station. Today, tobacco isn’t grown commercially anywhere in Florida; it’s associated mainly with cigarettes and the health hazards that come with them. But in 1921, farms in Quincy and surrounding areas were growing a different kind of tobacco. Broad-leaved and grown under shade, it was harvested and dried to a crisp, golden desiccation in huge curing barns and used to wrap premium cigars. Beginning in the 1890s, growing and processing this tobacco became the leading agricultural industry, and within a few years, Gadsden County was known as the shade tobacco capital of the world. AREC-Quincy still had a curing barn when I was there. I have a rattlesnake story that goes along with it.

Then around the time of the first world war, a disease called black shank infected the tobacco crop and threatened to end Gadsden County’s economic lifeline. Desperate farmers turned to the State Legislature, who responded by leveraging the land-grant university system to establish the University of Florida Tobacco Experiment Station on a 23-acre plot in Quincy. By the early 1930s, researchers at the station had developed varieties that were resistant to black strap disease, saving north Florida’s tobacco industry. So while the rest of the nation was entering the Great Depression, Gadsden County was experiencing a renaissance, thanks to UF/IFAS research.

There’s an excellent story in Tallahassee Magazine about the people, black and white, who lived through Gadsden’s golden age of tobacco, which lasted through the 1960s. You can also visit the Shade Tobacco Museum in nearby Havana (yes, it’s named after the city in Cuba) to see how the tobacco industry impacted the community in those days.

Quincy Chamber of Commerce brochure, 1951. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The shade tobacco boom came to an abrupt end in the early 1970s, due to foreign competition, labor and production costs, industry changes and decreased demand. Thousands of workers were laid off and farmers were again faced with a tough choice: either grow alternative crops or go out of business.

Fortunately (in truth, by design), the research center at Quincy had been growing and diversifying throughout the boom years. Cattle and forage programs were added in the 1940s, field crops and horticulture in the 1950s. Renamed the Agricultural Research and Education Center in 1971, researchers there were already in a position to help growers make the transition to other field crops, including corn, cotton, peanuts, soybeans, tomato, and canola, as well as ornamental plants and forages.

Today the North Florida Research and Education Center has grown from a 23-acre tobacco farm to a cutting-edge facility that encompasses 1,000 acres. At Quincy and its sister facilities in Marianna and Live Oak, faculty and staff representing eight academic departments conduct research, teaching and Extension programs representing forage and small grains breeding, agronomic crop production, specialty crops like vegetables, fruits and nuts, ornamental plants, alternative crops such as hemp and carinata, cold-hearty citrus, forest regeneration, precision ag technology and Artificial Intelligence.

On October 1st, UF/IFAS faculty, administration, emeritus faculty, Gadsden County commissioners, and area stakeholders gathered to celebrate NFREC Quincy’s Centennial. Guest speakers, including UF/IFAS VP Scott Angle and interim NFREC Director Barry Tillman, talked about the center’s past, but their focus was fixed on the future of UF/IFAS and its role in feeding the world and strengthening Florida’s economy.

Professors Sudeep Sidhu, Ian Small and Ramdeo Seepaul host a presentation at NFREC’s 100th Anniversary celebration October 1st, 2021.

The old Tobacco Experiment Station was created out of a need to solve a problem that was threatening a whole region’s economy. By continuously growing and diversifying, NFREC remains relevant 100 years later. That’s the way UF/IFAS teaching, research and Extension work—fill a specific gap in knowledge and then branch out and adapt as conditions and needs change.

Today, in the year of its 100th anniversary, NFREC continues to serve the community by investigating new possibilities, investing in new techniques and technologies, and anticipating the needs of a changing environment.

The fond memories of NFREC I have today were not so fond back in the days of summer heat, but it was one heck of an education in more ways than one!