by JULIE GMITTER
Highlands County native Gabe Smoak is a Lake Placid resident, born and raised, who comes from a long line of citrus growers and cattle handlers. His family’s citrus and cattle lineage began in the early 1930s when his great grandfather, John F. Smoak, moved from Lakeland to the Lake Placid area and purchased his first citrus grove. Now, 80 years later, Smoak Groves is still family-owned and operated by the Smoak family, and their cattle and citrus operations span Highlands to Hardee County. Smoak is not only following in his forefathers’ footsteps and carrying on the family tradition, but he’s also working to ensure that current and future generations have a clear path to the grove/pasture blazed for them as well.
As a senior at the University of Florida, Smoak majors in Food and Resource Economics and will be graduating with his bachelor’s degree in December 2022. He’s also a proud member of the Young Farmers and Ranchers organization and the UF Collegiate Farm Bureau. The Florida chapters of the Farm Bureau belong to the larger National Farm Bureau.
Smoak is one of just seven undergraduates, recently selected to serve on the Alpha Gamma Rho National Collegiate Advisory Council. This is just one of the paths he is taking to realize his dreams as part of the future of Florida agriculture.
Alpha Gamma Rho is a social/professional fraternity that hosts chapters nationwide. Smoak serves as president of the chapter at UF, leading 59 active brothers. AGR was started by and for agricultural majors, and nearly all members of this fraternity are agricultural majors, agriculture business, food science, and other similar majors.
Smoak, who will represent Region One, will have the opportunity to advise the national AGR Board of Directors. These young agricultural enthusiasts will meet and plan, compile their thoughts, and present them to the AGR board of directors. For example, Smoak and his peers may work to reshape a crisis management plan or policies on a national level that would trickle down to each chapter, propose a plan, or present ideas. He explains that this is a great way for younger members to be able to show the perspective of members who are on campus.
Smoak is passionate about agriculture overall and stays on top of all the current issues in the industry.
“Greening is still a huge issue, locally and in other areas of the country, but remains a huge issue to Florida growers,” Smoak says. “And nationally, inflation is also causing issues that can’t be ignored in the ag industry, too. Because of high-cost diesel gas and fertilizer prices almost doubling, you’re faced with a tree that’s not producing its full yield and having to pay double for most things, so it’s a tough line to toe. To compound matters, there is also somewhat of a drought right now, but you need the diesel pump to run the irrigation in the groves, so the yield that is being produced is high cost at every turn.”
The ability to work with the board of directors is exciting for Smoak because while he has experience talking and networking with people who operate at a national level and industry professionals, the experience of taking part in a board meeting and actually giving his opinion and defending his opinion is new and will push him outside of his comfort zone.
“I’m not comfortable about that part at all,” Smoak shares, “but I’m passionate about the committee so it’s a no-brainer for me to want to advance in the organization. Learning the inner workings of this organization and having a positive effect on this fraternity that I love so much is what I’m most looking forward to.”
AGR alumni provide an immensely strong network and have raised nearly $7 million over the course of the past four to five years for new housing and scholarships for current brothers. Smoak says that 49% of the brothers are AGR scholarship recipients, and he also credits the strong alumni network for the success of the fraternity and all its brothers.
“Whether you’re 18 or 80, there’s a common interest towards making sure that there’s ag for the next generation behind you,” he says.
“The older members and alumni are so willing to help and teach the newer generation.”
Smoak’s dream is to make a positive impact on Florida agriculture, no matter what that means. He says he “can rest easy if I know I’m doing the best I can to impact and change Florida ag for the better. Through AGR and Farm Bureau, I’ve had the opportunity to be exposed to different commodities and people from around the state, and they’re all facing different issues, but a lot of them are similar. It’s a way of life for so many people around the state, so if I can do anything to preserve that, then I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.” So what’s the biggest lesson Smoak has learned so far?
“The American farmer/agriculturalist might be growing different crops in different areas, but the values and morals are the same throughout the country.”