The Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade has an extensive barn-owl program. The birds hunt crop pests, such as rats, and are highly effective at doing so. / All photos by J.D. VivianEditor’s note: This is the first of several stories that Florida Food & Farm will run about the April 6 open house at EREC.

The professors at the Everglades Research and Education Center (EREC) in Belle Glade study topics such as “Effect of Topramezone and Synthetic Auxin Herbicides on Sugarcane” and “Carbon Fractions in Subsiding Histosols in the Everglades Agricultural Area.”

But if you visit this University of Florida facility (erec.ifas.ufl.edu) — on Old State Road 80 about 3 miles southeast of downtown — you won’t see the profs walking around in tweed jackets. Short-sleeve khaki shirts; blue jeans; and other far-more-suitable clothing — even wading boots — are the norm.

That’s because the faculty members and other researchers here are doing hands-on agricultural research that is vital to South Florida, the United States and even other countries. And most if not all of them have to get dirty to do it.

Recent EREC open house opens eyes


Every other year, EREC, founded in 1921 as the Everglades Experiment Station, hosts a free open house. At the April 6 event, some 200 attended, including a total of about 30 ninth- through 12th-graders from Glades Central High and Glades Day schools. EREC is an agricultural and environmental research and education facility of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

Attendees were divided into various groups. (This writer went around with the students from Glades Central and Glades Day.)

EREC Open House field trip

EREC’s open house included literal “field trips.” Here, Glades Day and Glades Central High students learn about sugar-cane varieties from Jose Fernandez, a doctoral candidate in EREC’s Weed Science Department. At far right is Glades Day School Agriscience teacher Kalyn Hartley. To her immediate left is Amanda Orsenigo, Agriscience teacher at Glades Central High.

Disappearing soil

One of the big draws at EREC is the Subsidence Post. In 1924, the 9-foot concrete post was driven down to bedrock, its top flush with the surface of the soil. Since then, 6 feet of the dark soil — in the Glades, it’s called “muck” — has been lost.

During his presentation, Gregg Nuessly, an entomology professor who also serves as EREC’s director, explained what is happening: “The soil is decomposing into its carbons and getting shallower. Soil subsidence increases the pH level of the soil, so it’s harder for plants to absorb nutrients. This is where science comes in.”

The theme of the open house was “The Value of Science,” a topic that was stressed throughout the five-hour event. Fortunately, the amount of subsidence has decreased markedly in the last eight years. Since 2009, due to the use of “best management practices,” the soil level at the Subsidence Post has not changed; now, as then, 3 feet of soil still remain above the bedrock.

Rena Borkhataria, an assistant research professor of wildlife ecology, explained to the students the importance of stopping subsidence: “If we lose the soil, we lose the agriculture.”

Barn owls used instead of chemicals

Another big hit with the students during the 10 presentations they saw, which ranged from “Insects in Florida Rice” to “Basil Downy Mildew,” was “Barn Owls in the EAA (Everglades Agricultural Area).” Stephen Raid, who works in the Agronomy Lab at EREC, noted, “We have one of the highest populations of barn owls in the U.S.”

EREC has installed about 400 barn-owl boxes on farms throughout the EAA. Raid opened the one on a table in front of him. Inside were four barn-owl chicks and small dead animals that their parents had delivered earlier. The students, ignoring the smell, crowded around for a good look and to shoot cell-phone photos.

Raid explained that the owls are highly skilled at finding prey, such as voles and rats; so farmers don’t have to use as many — or, in some cases, any — rodenticides. Then he gave students the bad news: “About 60 percent of the owls die during their first year. Only one in 10 reaches 3 years of age.”

After the presentations and visits to the fields ended, those attending the open house were treated to lunch, compliments of EREC.

Amanda Orsenigo, Glades Central High’s Agriscience teacher, jokes with a student while standing next to the Subsidence Post at EREC.

What did students learn at EREC open house?

Here is what five Glades Central High School students said about the April 6 open house. Fourteen students from Amanda Orsenigo’s Agriscience class at the Belle Glade school attended. (Orsenigo’s grandfather Joseph Orsenigo joined the staff of EREC in 1957 and retired in 1975. He died in 2009.)

Erik Calderon, 11th grade: “My favorite part of the trip is when I got to see the barn owls up close.”

Alejandro Lopez, 11th grade: “The field trip was great. I met a lot of scientists and chemists. We learned about soil loss and animal conservation.”

London Holland, 11th grade: “I learned that over the years, new types of beetle species have occurred in this area. These species have only been found in our area.”

Jessica Hill, 10th grade: “I learned that there are different career areas in agriculture. There are jobs that deal with soil science, conservation and insects. I learned that baby barn owls do not live a very long life, and when they feel threatened, they make a hissing sound. These baby owls were my favorite part of the visit.”

Denise Fields, 11th grade: “I learned about two new rusts affecting sugar cane (brown and orange). Through experiments, researchers have established when each rust occurs and how much of the crop is affected.”