By BRAD BUCK
Special to the Highlands News-Sun
IMMOKALEE — He may hold the title “emeritus,” which means “retired,” but Gene McAvoy remains active with UF/IFAS Extension and research, helping bring farmers’ concerns back to UF/IFAS scientists. In fact, he just won the Researcher of the Year Award from the Florida Tomato Committee.
For the past 22 years, McAvoy served UF/IFAS as an Extension agent. The goal of Extension is to “extend” UF/IFAS science to growers, gardeners and its many other stakeholders.
But many UF/IFAS Extension agents, including McAvoy, don’t just bring UF/IFAS science to the public, they provide a voice for growers. So, the tomato committee recognized McAvoy for his work in helping define and implement tomato research that will eventually help farmers.
“I was humbled and honored to be named. This meant a lot to me to know that the growers and industry that I have worked with felt that I made a positive contribution in their businesses,” McAvoy said.
McAvoy has served as researcher, collaborator or facilitator on many research projects through the years.
Michael Schadler, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange, said growers showed their respect for McAvoy in selecting him as Researcher of the Year.
“Gene’s name quickly rose to the top of the list for consideration when our growers were selecting the Researcher of the Year,” Schadler said. “Although his role in research is on the Extension side, that role has been crucial to helping tomato growers apply the wide range of research that comes out of the UF/IFAS network. Equally important is the feedback that Gene facilitates from growers to the faculty at the various UF/IFAS research centers.”
In his two-plus decades with UF/IFAS, McAvoy has seen major changes in Southwest Florida farms.
“In 1997, around Immokalee, we had over 300 vegetable growers on about 20,000 acres. Now we have fewer than 100 on over 65,000 acres,” McAvoy said. “Some of the increase in acreage has been due to urbanization and rising land costs — especially on the east coast and Miami Dade County — causing growers to move operations to Southwest Florida. Here, there is still a lot of relatively affordable, relatively warm, abundant supply of open land.”
Born in Orange, New Jersey, McAvoy spent his formative years in East Orange, New Jersey, just a few blocks from Newark. For his first part-time summer high school job on a farm, McAvoy picked strawberries, peppers and tomatoes.
He attended Rutgers University – the first from his family to attend college. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rutgers.
After graduating from college, McAvoy joined the Peace Corps, serving in Niger, this led to 12 years with USAID, working with vegetable growers in Niger, South Africa and Jamaica.
In 1989, the McAvoy family moved from Jamaica to Lee County. He started as an environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Health — food safety and septic tank inspections, among other duties.
“I like to think this experience helped me to understand the food chain from beginning to end,” he said.
McAvoy eventually came to work for UF/IFAS Extension Hendry County, first as the vegetable agent. For the final 14 years there, he served as director of UF/IFAS Extension Hendry County and regional specialized vegetable agent.
In all those years, McAvoy has advocated for Southwest Florida farmers and UF/IFAS research. He’s still conducting research and Extension in pest and disease management vegetable variety trials, worker safety training, irrigation management and other areas.
“Gene’s ability to understand the latest research and help growers apply it is a testament to the importance of Extension work,” Schadler said. “Of course, that only works well when you have someone like Gene who makes an effort to know everyone in the industry and to make himself available to growers. If you grow tomatoes or vegetables in Southwest Florida, you definitely know Gene McAvoy, and many have come to rely on his expertise over the years.”