Environmental management in agriculture and natural resources (EMANR) student Roberto Ortez recently participated in the Farm Foundation Cultivator Round Table discussion—the seventh time in a row a student at the University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) has been chosen.
Students selected for the Farm Foundation Cultivator Round Table join experts to discuss issues surrounding agriculture and natural resources. Only six undergraduate or graduate students from accredited North American colleges or universities are selected to attend the four-day event, which was in Delray Beach, Florida, this spring.
Heather Enloe, lecturer of water science and Ortez’s advisor, knew Ortez was interested in resilience and sustainability in agriculture and thought his background, experience and interests would make him a perfect fit to attend the round table.
Growing up, Ortez planned to start farming directly after high school, thinking he would not attend college. That was until he heard about online programs offered through CALS. Now, Ortez is a full-time EMANR student, while maintaining a full-time job supervising more than 50,000 acres as the Sugarcane Rotation Development Program Ag Supervisor at Florida Crystals.
Ortez applies the concepts from his classes directly to the work he does on the farm. “I’m glad that it worked out this way because it’s changed my perspective,” Ortez said. “I see the impact that agriculture has and the impact that I can have on the environment.”
Ortez saw that the spring 2022 Farm Foundation Cultivator meeting was placing emphasis on South Florida water quality and water management, which fit his interests perfectly. “I wanted to be a part of it,” Ortez said. “That is basically what I do every day.”
Along with joining discussions with agricultural professionals, each student selected for the Round Tables also presents a poster representing key areas of their studies. Ortez presented his poster on the importance of soil and water health for resiliency. He used his eight years of experience in the Everglades Agricultural Area to lead the discussion.
Ortez built relationships with several agriculturalists, including representatives from the U.S. Trade Representative for Agriculture Affairs and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as CALS faculty members. Ortez was also able to trade experiences and ideas with farmers, both small- and large-scale.
As Ortez takes courses toward the EMANR degree and learns more about the industry through his job, his main goal of owning and operating his own farm remains. While at the Farm Foundation meeting, Ortez met one farmer who shared his experiences and the time, money and effort it took him to get his operation started. “Talking to him about that inspired me. I was like I know where I need to start,” Ortez said.
During the meeting, the group also toured vegetable fields to learn more about agriculture in the South Florida area. During the visits, Ortez realized he was only one street from where he lived, but he was learning about places he had never visited, including a tour of a cabbage packing house. Ortez was excited to jump in and have conversations with other students about his home area, an area that is so different from the rest of the United States.
“I was answering people’s questions and giving them little details about the operations, which was really cool,” Ortez said.
Although the conference took place in Ortez’s home area, he still gained new skills and knowledge to apply to his work with Florida Crystals. He made connections for future career opportunities and talked to faculty members about master’s programs and future courses. Ortez even had the chance to meet a few of his online professors in person for the first time.
“For now, I think my goal remains the same, but I’m open to new opportunities,” Ortez said. “I feel like I can have the biggest impact while I am farming, but at the same time I now know the importance of staying up to date with different policies and changing laws.”