Ag Woman Pioneer: Dr. Martha Rhodes Roberts: Advancing Florida Agriculture

Meet Dr. Martha Rhodes Roberts, a leader in Florida agriculture.

Agriculture is a leading industry in Florida, and The Sunshine State’s ag industry wouldn’t be where it is today without the leadership of Dr. Martha Rhodes Roberts. With an entire career dedicated to agriculture in Florida, Dr. Roberts has long been an icon in Florida ag. It should come as no surprise that she was named the 2017 Women of the Year in Agriculture and has a place in the Agriculture Hall of Fame. Explore the life and career of the amazing Dr. Martha Rhodes Roberts.

Dr. Roberts was born in 1939 in Oxford, Mississippi, an area that combined what would later be the focus of her career: education and agriculture. Mississippi University, or Ole’ Miss, is located in Oxford, and agriculture is a leading industry. However, her family moved to Gainesville, Georgia, and another ag-heavy state. She participated in the 4-H Club at her high school, starting her on the road to a career in agriculture.

Dr. Roberts stayed in Georgia for college, attending North Georgia College. She graduated summa cum laud with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1960. She continued her education at the University of Georgia, earning a master’s degree in 1961 and a doctorate in microbiology in 1965. Dr. Roberts could have easily have found a position in Georgia’s ag industry that where she would be able to utilize her considerable talents, but she did not.

In 1968, Dr. Roberts joined the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), working in the Food Laboratory as a microbiologist/chemist. She rose through the ranks of FDACS, taking on the role of an assistant chief with the Food Laboratory in 1970.
In 1984, she stepped into the dual role of Chief of the Food Laboratory and the Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture, making her the first woman in the U.S. to hold the position. She held the position until 1991 when she was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Food Safety. She worked tirelessly in that position until 2003 when she became the Director of Industry Relations. She added the position of Special Assistant for Government Affairs for the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), and she held the roles until 2016.
A Career of Dedication

The number of groups and committees that Dr. Roberts has taken on in her 35 years with FDACS is extensive, and she’s worked alongside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, providing her professional expertise to a variety of ag-related issues. She spearheaded a campaign to gain the federal support of important pest eradication programs, and she was instrumental in working with the Environmental Protection Agency to get approval for the use of certain chemicals to tackle the infestation of the Mediterranean fruit fly in 1997 and 1998.

Other positions that Dr. Roberts held during her career including serving as President of the Association of Food and Drug Officials, working to organize the Conference for Food Protection, serving as a member of the Institute of Food Technologists’ Science Advisory Board, and she led the formation of the Suwannee River Basin Nutrient Management Working Group.
Her focus has ever been for the good of the agriculture industry in Florida, and by extension, the conservation and environmental efforts that are a natural extension of agriculture. For example, the Suwannee River Basin Nutrient Management Working Group is a partnership of both private and public entities that aims to assess nutrient loadings into the river and create incentive-based programs that will entice ag operators to reduce the level of nutrients reaching the waterway.

Dr. Roberts also oversaw the formation and execution of the Commissioner of Agriculture’s Ag-Environmental Leadership Awards Program. It’s a program that recognizes Florida growers and producers who utilize environmentally friendly practices—such as those that protect natural flora and fauna, manage levels of pesticides and nutrients, conserve water and safeguard water quality, and protect soil health—with an annual award. Furthermore, Dr. Roberts also began the formation of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy within FDACS, and today it is the only state-housed water policy office housed in the country.

Dr. Martha Rhodes Roberts was instrumental in so many facets of Florida agriculture that the landscape of the current industry would be much different today without her efforts. She has also been a pioneer for other women looking to step into leadership roles in agriculture, setting a precedent of excellence and a path for women who share her love of agriculture.

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