Farm to Spork: Meet Shawn Steed (UF/IFAS Extension Program)

Are you interested in improving your gardening or horticulture abilities? Have you had an itching desire to learn more about lawn care? Are you looking for a place that can offer you services regarding matters, ranging from your soil quality, to managing your household finances? Well, did you know that you can access all of these resources in one place?

If your answer to any of these questions is a resounding ‘yes’, then today will be the day for you! In this segment of Farm to Spork, I speak with Shawn Steed, and the integrative community-based work that him and his colleagues are doing through the University of Florida’s Institute for Agricultural Sciences Extension program (further referred to as UF/IFAS).

Video interview with Shawn Steed

[The Funky Spork]: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you got into this field of work

[Shawn Steed]: Well, I got a degree in Horticulture in College, and I always liked being outside. I love science. I kind of melded all of those likes into the horticulture field. When I looked through course catalogs, Horticulture kind of seemed to float to the top. I got a Bachelor’s degree, and then went to receive a Master’s degree. I then went to work in the industry growing plants for Speedling*, one of the largest transplant producers in the world.

I eventually went into propagation, and worked at a tree farm doing tree liners, which are small trees for the Tree Industry. And then I started doing my own propagation. And then I started doing my own farming, from there.

I just had a passion for growing things.

[The Funky Spork]: It really started from this passion you had where you were getting your hands dirty, really, and immersed in that soil.

[Shawn Steed]: Yeah, I just love being outside. Love the outdoors, love nature, love science, and it all kind of came together. Did a lot of prayer, trying to search my way through things. Horticulture seemed to have the answers. I do feel like it’s a calling.

The Perennial garden at the UF-IFAS Seffner Extension Campus
The Perennial garden at the UF-IFAS Seffner Extension Campus

[The Funky Spork]: One of the hats you wear is with the University of Florida. First of all, can you tell us more about this division of The University of Florida (further referred to as UF), and the work you’re doing?

[Shawn Steed]: So this Seffner location is a part of a cooperative extension. It’s a cooperation between local government (Hillsborough County Government), and UF. Each county in Florida has an extension office. Some even have multiple extension offices. We are tasked with bringing science information to the general public at a local level. We are public servants who work in a variety of different areas. We bring research from UF to the local body. Generally, if you’re a faculty from UF, you’re either appointed to do teaching, research, or extension. You’re either one of or part of those three categories. The extension component is delivering that information to local clientele.

We are also a bridge for the researchers. We see problems at the local level. And we say ‘We need answers to this problem.’ There may not be information there. So, we would bring that up to researchers at the University of Florida or beyond. Then researchers would try to find answers for us to deliver back to local clientele.

[The Funky Spork]: Now I know that, being here in Hillsborough County, from what I know, we have an office in Plant City. But we have this location in Seffner. So what is the Seffner location focused on?

[Shawn Steed]: Seffner is our main office location. And we kind of radiate out from there. We have different footprints of UF. We also have the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, FL, which also has that three-part mission. But Balm is more focused on the research areas. They specialize in vegetables, strawberries, and entomology. The Seffner branch partners with them to deliver that information to local growers.

We also have a tropical research aquaculture lab in Sun City Center. We (UF) also have a branch campus in Plant City that is part of the Gulf Coast Research Education Center.

A recycled yard waste compost demonstration at the UF/IFAS Seffner Extension
A recycled yard waste compost demonstration

[The Funky Spork]: What work are you specifically doing with the Extension?

[Shawn Steed]:  I work with ornamental plant production. I work with the nursery growers, tree farm growers, and sod growers. I’m also a multi-county agent. I also work in Polk County’s Bartow office Extension division.

[The Funky Spork]: What are some projects you are currently working on?

[Shawn Steed]: One of the things that we have worked on during the last few years is working with tropical plants. We have some tropical plant producers, locally. They were trying to control weeds out of containers, a very labor-intensive process. So many of these growers try to use preemergent herbicides, which is applied over the plants to help keep the weeds down for multiple months, a labor-saving strategy. 

There was no good information at the local or university level on pre-emergent herbicides for tropical plants. That was one of those local needs that we brought up to the researchers at the Gulf Coast Research Education Center. We got a grant to put out several different trials. Through that, we found some good pre-emergent herbicides for them to use locally. Now that information can go throughout the state of Florida, and will be presented at the Weed Sciences Society of America. That’s a local need that we were able to get funding for, and deliver that information to other local tropical growers. So now, we are saving local growers money, time, and helping them work in a more efficient cost-saving manner.

An information table for the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service
An information table for the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service

[The Funky Spork]: From what you have described, the Extension really serves as a forefront of some of the research and integrative work you are doing as a public service entity.  With that being said, what ways do you do regularly connect to the everyday Hillsborough County resident and stakeholder?

[Shawn Steed]: Me and some of my other colleagues work on home landscapes. For instance, a resident may be trying to figure out what is the best lawn to put down, or different fruit trees they could plant. Other residents may be curious about determining what the best time to plant for their gardens. We have specialists who deal with these types of concerns. We test soil, which is helpful for those do not know the pH or nutrient levels for their gardens. Residents are able to bring soil samples for us to test. This type of service can save residents money and time and can help to increase the home value of their property.

We also help landscapers if they have a landscape operation. One of my colleagues specifically deals with landscapers, and can help them with nuances, such as providing input regarding appropriate types and levels of sod and fertilizers for different landscapes. We also help with regulations, in terms of licensing people to apply fertilizers.

Our extension office also has a division that helps residents work on their finances. If you want to do your taxes, we have staff that can assist you with that type of information. We also offer cooking and nutrition classes. We are also suited to meet the needs of farmers and the agriculture industry. Additionally, we also have 4H programming for local youth.

Winning works of art from a recent recycled art contest
Winning works of art from a recent recycled art contest

[The Funky Spork]: So being that I am a food blogger, could I hypothetically bring in my dying pepper plant and its soil for you folks to examine?

[Shawn Steed]: As public servants, yes. That is a service we can assist with. We have Master gardeners, which is our volunteer core of Extension. They receive intensive training, and then they go out to help us with our mission throughout the county. You can bring in sick plants, pests, weeds or soil to our help desk. We can then assess the issues and determine proper control. While we charge a minimal fee for the soil testing, we offer the rest of our consultations as a service paid via tax funding.

[The Funky Spork]: Wow…these are your tax dollars at work!

[The Funky Spork]:  I understand that for a long time, Citrus greening has been an issue. For home owners who want to grow or maintain their citrus trees, is this type of inspection a service that can be offered at this Extension office?

[Shawn Steed]: Sure. We actually have an agent on-staff that strictly works with the citrus industry. The backyard residential gardeners can be supported by our Master Gardener Help Desk service. But if you have acreage and are selling (or plan to) sell citrus, our commercial citrus agent can assist you. Our citrus agent attends trade shows and does morning juice breaks, where he talks to growers about the Citrus Industry and relevant industry topics.

[The Funky Spork]: Are there opportunities here for people to get involved and volunteer?

[Shawn Steed]: Yes there are. We offer internship opportunities for high schoolers and college students. We do offer a direct internship program for UF students. We offer volunteer opportunities for 4H youth programming assistance. Our Master Gardeners program requires that participants contribute so many hours to different types of projects. Some of those projects can involve maintaining our beautiful campus, here. It could also involve working the phones or the helpdesk, soil-sampling, or other types of things. We offer something for everyone.

[The Funky Spork]: What would be the best way for someone to contact you, if they wanted to learn more about Horticulture, or wanted more general information about this division?

[Shawn Steed]: Here at this extension office, we have classes, we have vlogs, we have newsletters and other social media platforms to help residents and stakeholders with whatever they would like to achieve.

We do have an open door policy here. You’re always welcomed to walk in to see who’s here, or talk to the receptionist. I would encourage anyone who is interested in one of those segments of Extension to find that agent’s vehicle of information to learn more about their projects or programming.   

[The Funky Spork]: What are two-three words of advice you would offer to a household who may be interested in living or eating in a more sustainable way?

[Shawn Steed]: First, I would say that Information is very important for me. So I would say that it is important for one to keep up with the latest information regarding sustainability practice. Second, I would challenge one to act upon those practices. It’s one thing to have information about sustainability. But we all have to take our part to take small steps to live more sustainably.

The UF/IFAS Seffner office is located at 5339 County Road 579, Seffner, FL   33584. To learn more about the UF/IFAS Hillsborough County Extension office, please visit: https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/hillsborough/

To contact Shawn Steed, email him at ststeed@ufl.edu

UF/IFAS Seffner Extension Office

ONE MORE THING: Just like shelter, water, and clothing, food is an essential need for survival. Because of this, The Funky Spork is dedicated to providing coverage about different players who are involved with the decisions regarding the food on our plates. Will you and YOUR friends & family do me a HUGE favor, and consider supporting me on Patreon? The Funky Spork truly is a labor of love, and for as little as $3 per month, your support helps me create more educational and engaging food systems content. It would really mean the world to me to have your support. As always, thank you!

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