Aly Schortinghouse

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Ethan Carter had the two huge pines lifted off his home, put what he could salvage into storage, and moved in with relatives. Then, he started visiting farms.

The UF/IFAS Extension regional row crop agent based in Jackson County could not be accused of a lack of empathy. While his home took on further damage as rain poured in, he was documenting damage to fields, barns, equipment and homes to help farmers apply for relief.

Some asked him if what was left of their fields was worth harvesting. They asked if he had a guess as to what their post-Michael yield might be.

I’ll put our plant breeding up against anyone’s, but IFAS hasn’t developed cotton that stays on the bush in 150-mph winds. Until we do, we’ll have to do more hurricane response than prevention.

The strength of that response is in the statewide network of UF/IFAS Extension. When one area takes a hit, aid rushes in from neighboring counties.

A van full of agents from Escambia County rolled east toward the devastation. County Extension Director Nick Simmons and his team delivered hay. While they were there, they responded to call from a panicked producer whose cattle were escaping through his torn-up fence. They helped an agent cut her way through a barricade of fallen trees so she could join the relief efforts. Then they all crashed on air mattresses in a fellow agent’s living room so they could wake up on site and get at it again.

The hurricane revealed not only the scope of the Extension network but its versatility. Every agent was an ag agent doing damage assessment. Everyone was a livestock agent fixing fences.

Escambia 4-H agent Aly Schortinghouse became a chainsaw-wielding sawyer. Bay County agents Scott Jackson, Marjorie Moore and Paula Davis became 4-Hers of sorts. When they finished their days handing out supplies, they settled into bunks at 4-H Camp Timpoochee because they had no habitable homes to return to.

Meanwhile, Walton County Extension agent Laura Tiu reported to the Bay County office. People are used to going to Extension offices for help. A hurricane doesn’t change that. Tiu filled in while the Bay County staff went out to those who couldn’t come to them.

Escambia agent Libbie Johnson ran a laundry service for agents without power or water. She also pinch-hit for the agent who was supposed to run the UF/IFAS operation at the Sunbelt Ag Expo before Michael turned his life upside down.

Okaloosa agent Jennifer Bearden delivered a generator. She visited farms to do damage assessments. Jim Fletcher, a regional specialized water agent from Central Florida, came up to the Panhandle to fly a drone over farms to document the destruction with images. Doug Mayo turned the Jackson County Ag Center into a pet food and livestock feed center as well as a command post for directing volunteer fence repair crews to the ranches that needed them most.

As of this writing, we don’t know how long it will be until everyone gets utilities back and can sleep under their own repaired roofs. What we do know is that UF/IFAS Extension agents will keep doing what they always do – serving people who make their living off the land.

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.