by Jack Payne
The Panhandle’s farms of the future could include vast fields of mustard plants to be converted into jet fuel. Farmers from Escambia to Quincy could some day be among the early adopters of a peanut no one is allergic to.
The Panhandle’s past whispers through longleaf pines that have disappeared from so many other places in the Southeast. The pines are part of what make western Florida the land of the southeastern American kestrel and northern bobwhite quail.
Insects threaten that future and that past.
That’s why the then-new director of the West Florida Research and Education Center (WFREC) pitched me the idea a few years ago of hiring an entomologist based in Jay and Milton. I agreed that it was time to hire the first entomologist in WFREC’s 72-year history.
As a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) faculty member at WFREC, a Brazilian bug doctor named Silvana Paula-Moraes is Florida’s only taxpayer-funded entomologist west of Quincy. She’s also the only one in all of Florida dedicated nearly full-time to field crops like cotton, peanuts, corn, soybean and carinata.
Before Paula-Moraes can fight the billions of bugs that could eat away the region’s future, she has to play some catch up. Her initial work is in doing a sort of bug census – what insects do you have, where are they, and what sort of threat do they represent?
Currently, western Panhandle farmers and foresters make decisions based on conditions in other states or other parts of Florida.
That’s not good enough for folks in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, and Washington counties, because just like soil and weather, the mix of insects can be an intensely local phenomenon. As Paula-Moraes says, when it comes to insects, what works in western Florida may not be the same as what works in south Alabama.
Insects are among the highest risks to making a living off the land. To adopt 21st century innovations such as new varieties of crops, local farmers need help reducing the risk that comes with change.
A heightened sense of risk makes it less likely that local growers would plant the crop that could one day be a key ingredient in the fuel powering Eglin Air Force Base’s Thunderbirds. If growers don’t know exactly what bugs they face in the field, they’re also more likely to spray insecticides more often.
Paula-Moraes is from Brazil, and before we recruited her she was working on pest threats to Nebraska corn. One thing she shares with her new western Florida neighbors is that she gets things done with what she has, not what she wishes she had.
She has cobbled together a team that includes a field biologist, a master’s student, an undergraduate intern, and an Extension agent. She has joined forces with scientists across Florida and in other states to localize big research projects. She has aggressively pursued national science funding to learn more about the fall armyworm, the bollworm and other pests that can spell doom for cotton.
Paula-Moraes kills bugs for a living. Her science seeks to to kill the right ones while sparing those insects that perform vital functions such as pollination and waste disposal.
Paula-Moraes has a public-spirited mission. Because she works in Jay and Milton, public to her means the people in Florida’s western counties, growers or not.
With support from UF/IFAS, the legislature, the growers, and the public, Paula-Moraes could become one of the Panhandle’s most important scientists and one whose work could contribute to Panhandle prosperity and preservation for decades to come.
She wants to discover the unique makeup of the Panhandle’s insect population, she says, because growers deserve it. So does the rest of the Panhandle’s people population.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.