By Jack Payne
Sean Kryger’s master’s thesis at the University of Florida’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) will be on trying to create a Florida beer with homegrown ingredients.
We’re a long way from a taste test. Kryger, who went to Santa Fe Catholic High School in Lakeland, is training a sniff panel to identify the aromas in hops that are most associated with great flavor.
Kryger is teaching sniffers to grade each whiff. He needs to get them from “I know what I like” to assigning each scent a numerical value on a scientific scale. Data like that could help plant breeders pick the most promising candidates for creating a Florida-grown hop.
Today’s agricultural sciences majors can stick their noses into just about anything related to food, to fiber, and even to fuel.
UF CALS undergraduates may soon be doing research or internships in a new federally funded project aimed at turning plants into military jet fuel. They get muddy and wet studying the advances in aquaculture that have turned nearby Cedar Key into a regional clam capital.
When they graduate, they enter a job market with an estimated annual 57,900 openings in agriculture and natural resources and only 35,400 new graduates in the majors needed to fill those jobs.
These are jobs such as moving millions of dollars with a few keystrokes as a cattle futures broker. Another CALS alumnus is a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation in the nation’s capital. Another is researching trends and developing new product markets for one of the nation’s largest food companies. Others are doctors and lawyers.
UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, to which CALS belongs, is the discovery and innovation arm of a $160 billion-a-year agriculture and natural resources industry in Florida. That industry requires an array of professionals that goes well beyond those who work on farms.
That industry is constantly changing. It gives researchers, outreach agents, teachers and their students the opportunity to feed the future. They can participate in creating a more just system of feeding the world by working on distribution of food, reducing its waste, and using methods to produce food with the least environmental impact.
We grow 300 crops commercially in Florida. Hops isn’t one of them. Kryger is among those who are looking to change that. Florida brewers import most of their hops from the Pacific Northwest or from abroad. No one has figured out yet how to successfully grow them on a commercial scale here.
Kryger’s work is important because flavor matters. It won’t do any good to breed hops that survive Florida’s heat and bugs if no one wants to drink the ale produced from them. He’s been convening his panel in a food science lab run by Dr. Charlie Sims, who has done sensory work on everything from Florida orange juice to strawberries to Cedar Key clams.
Together, Kryger and Sims are doing important advance work that could contribute to an entire new industry. Hops may seem like a longshot. But blueberries once were, too, and now they’re an $80 million-a-year industry, thanks to varieties that thrive in Florida that were developed by UF/IFAS. Students can play a role in finding the next big success story in Florida agriculture and natural resources. Indeed, we at UF/IFAS believe they’ll have to.
We need our best and brightest minds to figure out how to feed a projected 10 billion people on the planet by 2050, to prevent starvation even as we fight an obesity epidemic. We’ve even established a four-course certificate program that focuses undergraduates on devising solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our time.
Kryger’s work could ultimately keep more Florida farmers in business – farmers who could diversify with hops to supplement their production of fruits, vegetables, meat, and wood. It could also contribute to unlocking mysteries of taste that could carry over to other foods. Kryger is among that generation we’recounting on to both feed the world and curb its obesity epidemic.
We at CALS don’t believe a young person should have to wait until graduation to start working to solve the world’s problems. That’s what our faculty do in every Florida county, many states, and numerous countries. That means their students do, too.
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.
All UF/IFAS photos courtesy of Tyler Jones.
This article was originally published in the Orlando Sentinel.