New UF President Aims to Make Florida the Silicon Valley of Agriculture

By J. Scott Angle


The new University of Florida president knows a great deal about agriculture. I took him to Hillsborough County this month to get him up to speed on Florida agriculture and how UF/IFAS supports it.

When Dr. Ben Sasse arrived in Florida to become UF’s 13th president in February, he brought with him a 40-plus year history with farming that goes back to “walking beans” as a 7-year-old.

As a U.S. senator, he led an agriculture subcommittee. As an author, he explained to a rancher to put 400 pounds on a cow in four months for the economics to pencil out. As a dad, he sent his daughter away to a ranch to learn how to coil barbed wire and drive a tractor.

The takeaway from his visit to Hillsborough is that his vision is aligned with that of UF/IFAS. President Sasse had telegraphed this vision in May when he chose the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences for his very first UF commencement address. He told the graduates: “Our world needs a Silicon Valley of agriculture, and we want to make sure that that’s in Florida, built by you….” 

I took him to where we’re building a key part of it, the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm. We talked about the plan to build a Center for Applied AI in Agriculture. The visit confirmed his view that in agriculture, Florida is the future.

Buildings won’t make this happen, though. People will. So I was pleased to introduce President Sasse to the people who are working to make the Tampa area a hub of agricultural technology.

Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson was with us nearly every step of the way on our two-day tour that included a cattle ranch in Manatee County and research fields in Immokalee in addition to the tour of GCREC.

At GCREC, longtime Hillsborough County ag leader Kenneth Parker was a de facto tour guide. 

And a who’s who of Florida agriculture leadership converged on GCREC on a Saturday to show that even with 300 commodities, the Florida agriculture community speaks with remarkable coherence and consistency. Florida Farm Bureau President Jeb Smith, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association President Mike Joyner, and Florida Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Jim Handley were among those President Sasse met.

He also met new UF/IFAS faculty members Dana Choi and Kevin Wang, hired for their expertise in artificial intelligence. They demonstrated how they’re applying technology in ways that save growers labor, money and environmental impact. GCREC’s Nathan Boyd showed him a smart sprayer that applies chemicals only to weeds, not to the crop, and how he is helping drive an ethic among faculty that goes beyond innovation to commercialization—getting tech tools into growers’ hands.

It was an opportunity for President Sasse to see that scientists, elected leaders and producers are allied in this quest to keep Florida farmers in business with innovation that gives them an edge in a competitive global market.

President Sasse has a personal interest in the future of food. He was accompanied on the tour by his 12-year-old son Breck, who picked tomatoes, injected a citrus trunk and worked the controls of a robot.

President Sasse sees value in agriculture beyond feeding people. It’s a way to make them better human beings. He believes strongly in developing a culture of self-reliance, the kind you find on farms. In fact, his book, The Vanishing American Adult, is focused on the need to do so.

I don’t know if that means he’ll be looking for a farm to send Breck to. But as a dad, he’s thinking about his son’s future, and as a university president, he’s thinking about yours.

J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

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