Gene McAvoy Is No Stranger to the Ag Community, but His Vast Experience Might Still Surprise You
by KRISTEN GUEVARA
Joy and gratitude radiate in Gene McAvoy’s voice as he recalls the day he was inducted into the Ag Agent Hall of Fame this past July. As only the third Florida county agent ever to be inducted, it’s a tremendous honor he won’t forget.
“To be recognized by your peers and colleagues really means something,” he says.
McAvoy has been a part of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents since 1997 and is now a lifetime member.
McAvoy has been involved in agricultural work nationally and internationally for more than 50 years. McAvoy was raised in the city of Newark, New Jersey.
While he was in high school, McAvoy’s family migrated to the farmlands of southern New Jersey because of the race riots.
“With not much else to do out in the farmlands, I turned to agriculture, picking tomatoes and other vegetables,” he says.
Although his parents never attended college, McAvoy decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Plant Science at Rutgers University. He completed his bachelor’s degree with highest honors in 1974. After graduating, McAvoy joined the Peace Corps and served in Niger, West Africa, where he worked on a successful village gardening project from 1974-1976. Upon returning home to New Jersey when his contract in West Africa was over, McAvoy met his now wife. Later, when Niger was in the grips of a severe drought, he and his wife returned for another two-year stint to work on a seed multiplication project.
McAvoy discovered during his time in West Africa that although he excelled in experience and knowledge of agriculture, there was a higher degree that would benefit him in the workforce. McAvoy returned to Rutgers University to pursue a master’s degree in Horticulture. During his studies, McAvoy was offered a job in the International Programs Department at Rutgers University. He instructed a class in Seed Multiplication Systems based on his extensive overseas experience on the seed-producing project in Niger. He also led a summer short course in vegetable production and marketing. Not only did McAvoy help expand seed and vegetable growing efforts in West Africa and New Jersey but he also expanded his own family as he and his wife bore two sons together.
After earning his master’s degree in 1983 with highest honors, McAvoy was offered a job in Jamaica with Care International. McAvoy and his wife, along with their two young sons, relocated to Jamaica, where they spent six years setting up a vegetable growers cooperative. He considers this his most significant agricultural accomplishment.
“We started with seven farmers and grew to 300 farmers. We were shipping 50,000 pounds of callaloo a week as well as tens of thousands of mangos, increasing the amount of money Jamaican farmers made.”
According to McAvoy, “we were not competing with American farmers because we grew a lot of Jamaican specialty products and shipped them to the U.S. Jamaicans in the U.S. would pay a lot for a taste of home.”
After building such a successful cooperative, McAvoy and his family moved to Florida and bought a small farm on Pine Island to try to grow some of those Jamaican products.
“It was a dream come true,” he says. That dream became a nightmare when they learned the property had numerous violations.
“My wife and I had to take regular jobs to make ends meet.”
Things turned around when McAvoy was offered a job in Swaziland working with vegetable growers for much higher pay. The fall of the Soviet Union spelled the end of his contract, and after 14 years in total of working overseas, McAvoy and his family returned to the States once and for all. He was offered a choice of jobs for several counties through the University of Florida. He took an extension job at UF for Hendry County, where he and his wife currently reside. Although McAvoy retired in 2019, he was asked to return to UF as an Associate Director.
Currently, McAvoy is president of Have Gun Will Travel Agricultural Consulting and performs damage assessments for citrus insurance claims.
He’s left a legacy of knowledge, provision, and opportunity for growth in the agricultural community worldwide and through his sons; one of his sons is an agricultural engineer, while the other is a vegetable specialist at the University of Georgia.
Of the many roles McAvoy has assumed in his lifetime, he says the past 25 years as the Regional Vegetable Agent in Southwest Florida have been his favorite.
“I made a lot of friends and helped people through difficult times,” he says.
“I helped farmers remain competitive in a tough environment. Agriculture in general is my passion. I love the land and to see crops grow and feed people.”