Peggy Macdonald is Assistant Professor of History at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland. As an author, she focuses on science and innovation for a range of subjects that include Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry and key women in Florida history.
Macdonald's new book is Marjorie Harris Carr: Defender of Florida’s Environment, a profile of Carr and her pioneering campaigns to protect the Ocklawaha River and rescue Lake Alice in Gainesville. Macdonald, 43, a Gainesville native, earned her Ph.D. and master's in modern history at the University of Florida. She is working on an article on crop diseases, and answered some questions by email for The Daily Fray:
• Your new book is out about Marjorie Harris Carr. She became involved in environmental movements, I think, starting in the late 1950s. What was it about Carr that moved you to write her biography?
Jack Davis, who teaches environmental history at the University of Florida, and Florida Southern College history professor Mike Denham met with a group of UF history graduate students a decade ago to discuss good Florida topics for doctoral dissertations.
When Dr. Davis suggested Marjorie Carr I couldn't believe my good fortune because my mother grew up with Marjorie Carr's daughter, Mimi Carr. This connection to the Carr family enabled me to gain access to documents and pictures that scholars had not seen before, including a series of love letters Marjorie and Archie Carr exchanged in the first six months of their courtship and marriage. I also conducted oral history interviews of several of Carr's colleagues and family members. Poor Mimi sat through numerous interviews over a period of several years and welcomed me into her home many times to scan photos. Without Mimi's help the book would not have been possible.
• You grew up in Florida. You teach college students from Florida. Colorful things seem to take place in Florida on a daily basis, like a monkey on the loose in Tampa. What is it about Florida that shaped your career as an educator and fascinates you today?
Even though I'm a Florida native I didn't really fall in love with Florida until I started to study its history. Teaching Florida history is so much fun because students -- even those who were born and raised here -- seldom understand that American history began in Florida, not Virginia or Massachusetts as they are taught in grade school. Most textbooks continue to overlook Florida's contributions to early American history and even modern history, including the Civil Rights Movement. Whenever possible I incorporate Florida news items into our discussions of history to try to make it relevant to today's students. Of course, with all the weird news in this state it's not hard to find interesting things to talk about, like the Miami flesh-eating case, but Florida also routinely makes national headlines with political, environmental, and Civil Rights news stories.
• You’ve written about Florida’s family citrus farms. Alico Inc. of Fort Myers recently bought three Central Florida citrus growing operations for $363 million. Reaction in the media from citrus industry groups seems to be all good. What is your analysis of the sale -- for the industry and for consumers?
My knee-jerk reaction is that major purchases like the Alico deal might push Florida citrus more in the direction of California-style big agribusiness. Competition is good for consumers and it would seem that the more citrus growers there are, the more options consumers have. However, Alico appears to be committed to keeping citrus alive in Florida, and that in itself is a worthy goal. Smaller citrus cooperatives like Uncle Matt's Organic [in Clermont] are equally committed to preserving the citrus industry, but they have been working to empower local growers and find natural alternatives to pesticide treatments for citrus greening and other diseases. Uncle Matt's, which works closely with researchers from the University of Florida, claims to have about the same amount of luck managing citrus greening with natural techniques as its competitors, including Alico, have had by treating the disease with pesticides.
• In October, the USDA green-lighted five new rootstocks engineered by Kim Bowman at the USDA lab in Fort Pierce that appear to reject citrus greening. The researchers have been at it a long time. Is this a breakthrough -- a silver bullet?
It sounds like the new rootstocks offer improved tolerance to citrus greening on flatwood soils but not sandier soils. Of course, any breakthrough is good news, but it doesn't sound like this is the silver bullet researchers have been looking for. UF researchers recently discovered that a chemical used to treat gout impeded the spread of greening in about 80 percent of citrus trees in the laboratory. Scientists are working on multiple tools to combat greening, including developing genetically modified orange trees.
• Some say the clock is ticking -- that even a full collapse of the industry is possible because of citrus greening. Others say genetically modified oranges are the answer. What do you say?
Although there have been dire predictions that greening will wipe out the citrus industry within 10 to 15 years, I am optimistic that researchers will continue to find new ways to manage the disease. It would seem that citrus greening is here to stay, so we will have to develop new tools to help farmers maintain healthy trees. To be proactive, scientists are aggressively pursuing genetically modified oranges so we can continue to produce oranges not only in Florida, but around the world. Greening knows no borders, and it spread rapidly across the U.S. In the future we might have to choose between oranges modified with spinach DNA or no oranges. Then again, our existing orange varieties could remain but might become much more expensive. I still start my day with a glass of Florida orange or grapefruit juice every morning, and I hope to be able to do so well into my old age.
5=Q&A is a feature that appears periodically in The Daily Fray, spotlighting people, initiatives, places and things. For suggestions and comments, write: Editor@TheDailyFray.com.
Hasta la vista