by BRAD BUCK, UF/IFAS
You ask most Southwest Florida farmers who they turn to for science-based agricultural information, and they’ll say, “Gene McAvoy.”
It’s no accident the growers know him.
“When I first started to work in Southwest Florida, I would just ride around and cold-call visit farmers,” says McAvoy, now a UF/IFAS Extension agent emeritus. “Once folks got to know me and realized I could help them, they sought me out.”
For his work as an educator and spokesperson for agriculture during his 22-year career with UF/IFAS Extension, McAvoy has been named to the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame, an honor he’ll receive Feb. 13 at the Florida State Fairgrounds near Tampa.
Eva Webb, a retired field representative for the Florida Farm Bureau District 8, can attest to McAvoy’s commitment to stakeholders.
“Gene has been known to travel from one end of the state to another to meet with a farmer having a problem,” Webb wrote in a letter of support for McAvoy’s nomination. “Gene never turns off his phone, he has never had an 8 to 5 job. I do not know of any farmer that does not know or has not heard of Gene McAvoy. He has had a tremendous positive impact on Florida agriculture.”
Born and raised in East Orange, New Jersey – a suburb of Newark – McAvoy was a self-described “a city boy” until age 12, when his parents moved to Hazlet, New Jersey, which had some farms around it. His first job was picking vegetables on a local farm.
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in plant science in 1970 and a master’s in horticulture in 1983, both from Rutgers University, the land-grant university in New Jersey.
Before joining UF/IFAS, McAvoy worked for many years with small-scale vegetable producers in developing countries in Africa and the Caribbean. He also spent several years as a restaurant, food-service and septic tank inspector for the Florida Department of Health (DOH).
“It was a pretty tough time,” he said of his time at DOH. “But in looking back as an ag person, I feel it gave me an appreciation for the entire food cycle from beginning to end.”
He eventually joined UF/IFAS Extension Hendry County in 1997 as the vegetable and horticulture agent.
In 2004, he broke new ground as one of the first regional specialized Extension agents for UF/IFAS. In this role, McAvoy worked with vegetable producers in five counties in Southwest Florida.
The next year, McAvoy took on the role of county Extension director and maintained these dual responsibilities until he retired in 2019.
Less than a month into his retirement, McAvoy accepted the position of associate director for stakeholder relations at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, a position he held until July 2022.
During his time at UF/IFAS, McAvoy became well-known for his South Florida Pest and Disease Hotline, which he published biweekly during the vegetable production season. The hotline provides growers up-to-date information on pests and diseases on over 140,000 acres of South Florida vegetables.
Until very recently, he also published the monthly Pest of the Month Column in Florida Grower Magazine, which highlights a different pest or disease affecting Florida vegetable crops.
“I started putting out the South Florida Pest and Disease Hotline in 1997 at the suggestion of growers, and it caught the eye of the publishers of Florida Grower Magazine,” McAvoy says. “They approached me about doing a Pest of the Month column, which I did from 1998 until December 2023. Interestingly I never ran out of things to write about as Florida is ground zero for new pests and diseases–as they often start here–and was the first to introduce growers to a number of new arrivals during that time.”
People also know McAvoy because he’s active on social media. You might have seen his X (formerly Twitter) handle “@SWFLVegMan.” Through social media, he provides timely information that helps the fruit and vegetable industry understand how to succeed in this dynamic business.
Over the years, McAvoy made many media appearances, becoming the voice of agriculture in Southwest Florida. The New York Times, NPR, ABC, CNN, CBS, NBC and multiple local radio and television outlets have interviewed him.
For his work, McAvoy has received multiple awards. He’s been inducted into the National Association of County Agricultural Agents Hall of Fame and recognized by the Florida Farm Bureau and the University of Florida.
He has been involved with many other organizations, including the Joint Council of Extension Professionals, both the National and Florida Association of County Agricultural Agents, Florida Farm Bureau, Hendry County Cattlemen’s Association and the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.
Since his retirement from UF/IFAS, he works as a consultant.
McAvoy and his wife, Donna, live on their ranch outside LaBelle. He now owns and operates his own agricultural consulting firm.
“It is going great,” McAvoy says of his consulting. “I have more work than I can keep up with.”
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human, and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. ifas.ufl.edu | @UF_IFAS