Foresight is a gift leaders use to advance organizational missions. Anita Neal has for more than two decades led the development of new programs that save money for homeowners and nursery workers as they manage plant disease and invasive insects.
A career that began as a landscape designer for affluent oceanfront homeowners, Neal wanted a broader scope of purpose. She found it with a new position as a University of Florida Extension agent in St. Lucie County. It was 1995 when her service to the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension service began.
Her programs have attracted more than $3 million in grants. She spearheaded an exceedingly successful local farmers’ market and developed a set of experiential youth summer programs that launched more than a few science careers.
Neal led the St. Lucie Extension’s Master Gardener program in providing volunteers with the tools to assist homeowners with solutions to their landscape concerns. The training materials she developed assisted many new Master Gardener Coordinators.
Neal was promoted four times while working for the local Extension office, and in 2001, was named director of the St. Lucie County office.
In 2016, university officials promoted Neal a fifth time. Neal became UF/IFAS Southeast District Extension Director, and her responsibilities rose to Extension service leadership of the entire Southeastern Florida peninsula. Her new responsibilities include leadership of 68 county Extension agents and the Seminole Indian Tribe.
This year in August, at 62 years old, Neal completed a Ph.D. in entomology. Her studies took place while working full-time and during her promotion to the regional leadership position.
Neal began the new doctorate in 2012 when she realized an insect was attacking landscapes and valuable nursery plants in south Florida. She knew nursery owners, landscape professionals and homeowners would need help managing the new invasive insect. Neal also knew that other Extension agents were receiving calls from clientele regarding this pest.
Neal’s doctoral dissertation involved an invasive insect, the Sri Lankan weevil. She tested one traditional pesticide and six biopesticides, or substances that both protect the environment and deal with the pest insect.
“Anita’s dissertation research was a critical first step to finding environment-friendly biopesticides to manage this invasive weevil,” said Ronald Cave, director for the UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center. Cave supervised Neal’s doctoral work.
“Her results tell us the products that should receive further research, and homeowners and peach growers can try to see how they fit in their pest management programs,” Cave said.
Some of the agents she works with conduct experimental trials with growers and producers searching for solutions to pest insects, pathogens and weeds. “The experience I gained through experimental design and application may enable me to assist some of the faculty I work with,” Neal said.
Finding solutions to the problems growers face is one aspect Neal most enjoys about her work. A second aspect she relishes is teaching youth and adults new ideas.
During her leadership for the county Extension, she developed inventive summer youth programs in which children interfaced with entomologists and Extension agents. One program, Bug-a-Boo camp, featured insect identification and netting in the field. Participants then learned how to pin and label insects from Robert “Bob” Bullock, a late professor emeritus of entomology and a Florida Citrus Hall of Fame inductee who Neal had enlisted to help with the camp.
Neal has a wide network of scientists and horticultural experts to help her with the UF/IFAS St. Lucie County Cooperative Extension Master Gardener’s program. Citizens who participate in the adult program learn how to serve public gardeners with plant clinics to diagnose and treat plant diseases and other problems. The program, under Neal’s leadership, grew to a robust volunteer program, with over 140 Master Gardeners donating an average of 18,000 volunteer hours.
“Adults who become Master Gardeners learn how to select the ‘right-plant-right place’ for local gardens,” said Neal.
In her new role as the regional Extension director, Neal said she enjoys selecting the right people to serve at the right place as county Extension agents.
“I like hiring new faculty and watching them develop,” said Neal. “I love it when an agent surprises me with a new way of looking at something, and I also like when agents are successfully promoted.”
Ed Skvarch, who succeeded Neal as the UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie County director, said Neal’s strongest skills are with mentoring and leadership.
“Anita mentored me and today I still utilize a lot of her leadership philosophies,” said Skvarch. “Often, I take a moment to reflect on how Anita would view and handle a situation.”
Neal said the UF/IFAS Extension service had changed a great deal from the time she began working for the program. The service tradition is to deliver science-based information soon after research scientists publish their findings. One of Extension’s most significant advances over the last 20 years has been the incorporation of technology into teaching. Media marketing is the most relevant and engaging tool, she said, because people use the internet and seek a reliable source for their landscaping and food production issues.
Today, the service responds to society’s needs as conditions change, she said.
“Climate change is an important issue today,” said Neal. “Good collaborators are needed to identify relevant issues and solutions and to enhance connections to the University of Florida as we brace for sea level rise and increasing temperatures.”