One of the blessings of the holiday season is that it gives us time to express gratitude for our good fortune, enjoy being with our family and friends, reflect on moments from this year and look forward to the future.
I’m going to say 2022 was a pivotal year for Florida, UF/IFAS Extension and myself. It was my first full year as Dean for Extension, and as a Floridian. These past months I have been travelling throughout the state, listening to our stakeholders and faculty. So far, I’ve visited 53 of Florida’s 67 counties. I’ve shot skeet in Levy County, toured the shores of Indian River Lagoon, talked with citrus growers in Lake Alfred, enjoyed the local cuisine in St. Augustine, taken a selfie with hundreds of 4-H youth on the steps of the capitol in Tallahassee, ridden an airboat across the Everglades, and many other unforgettable experiences.
I’ve come to love this state for its natural beauty, its diverse cultures, and especially the energy and enthusiasm of the people who live here. Floridians are truly people who live for the future.
This is the year we really began emerging out of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been wonderful to finally see a return to meeting face-to-face and welcoming people to live events. In Extension, the pandemic has taught us a lot about delivering education online, and moving forward, we are going to expand our use of technology to reach more people where and when they need us. However, we also learned that there’s really no replacement for face-to-face interaction, field visits, open houses, and learning live and in-person.
Hurricane Ian was Florida’s deadliest natural disaster in 50 years, resulting in 146 deaths and widespread damage to property, agriculture and infrastructure. I visited Lee County not long after the storm and it’s difficult to convey in words the total destruction wrought by the storm. Many farmers have lost significant parts of their operations, as Ian flooded fields during planting or harvest, stripped citrus trees of their fruit, and destroyed beehives that pollinate our crops. The long-term damages to Florida’s agriculture are estimated to be as high as $1.56 billion.
While the devastation has been heart-breaking, the enormous outpouring of support from people all over the state is truly heartening. Before, during and after the storm, Extension faculty and staff really showed their value as information first-responders, staffing emergency operations centers and evacuation shelters, helping farmers and other businesses assess the damage, and finding the assistance and relief they need to put their lives back together. We will be living with the aftereffects of Ian for a long time, but Extension is there to help.
Even while we were reeling from Ian — and later from Hurricane Nicole — Extension agents across the state carried on with our Peanut Butter Challenge, coordinating the collection of nearly 20,000 jars of peanut butter donated by so many of you to fight hunger. The fact that Lee County, which was especially devastated by Hurricane Ian, still managed to raise donations speaks to our community’s spirit of giving.
Looking ahead to 2023, we at UF/IFAS Extension will be expanding our efforts to bring health education to more Floridians, particularly in places where basic health care and nutrition are out of reach for many people. We will be sharing new research in artificial intelligence and best management practices to help farmers grow better with less impact on the environment. We will be enhancing 4-H facilities for today’s youth and offering new hands-on programs to help inspire a new generation of leaders and innovators. I’m very excited about where we’re headed together in making Florida a place where we can grow sustainably and create opportunities for all of us.
I thank you for letting UF/IFAS Extension serve you in 2022, and I wish you joyful holidays and the best fortunes for the new year!