SEBRING - In 2006, Gary Mikulecky was Highlands County's extension director. John Alleyne signed on in December 2007, Mike Jensen came from Michigan in 2011, and Les Baucum was offered the director's job last week. In between, the interim directors at Highlands County Extension Office have included Dianne Dilger-Jacobson, Tim Hurner and Randy Gornto. "I think Les Baucum may very well provide the stability we're looking for," said Ray Royce, executive director of Highlands County Citrus Growers Association. "He's well grounded with all the crops produced in Highlands County. In conjunction, we've got some really good, really bright agents." Jacobson, an urban horticulturist, wrote a column about home gardening. When she was fired, Susan Finney, a volunteer for five years in the master gardener program, started an unsuccessful petition drive to get Jacobson rehired.
"It was extremely disruptive," Finney said. "We lost a good number of master gardeners over her firing by Mike Jensen - unfairly, I thought. I think there are still some lawsuits out there over that. Now that he's resigned, I believe things are settling down. About half (of approximately 75) master gardeners have come back. That's after David Austin took over as the horticulturist." Don Ingram led a boycott of master gardeners, hoping to get Jacobson rehired. "I think things at the office have been turned around rather dramatically. There aren't any major issues here now. "It's all good now," Ingram said. He, Finney and others were preparing for Saturday's annual plant sale in the Bert J. Harris Agricultural Center. "We've got an auditorium full of plants, and there are a lot of people working here." Is the current office still disrupted by the constant change of directors? "I don't think so," Ingram said. "We are making inroads into making this a less caustic employment environment." Ingram was on the committee that interviewed Baucum, and he believes they made the correct choice. Baucum has been an extension agent in Mississippi and Florida for more than 10 years, and he is currently the agronomy agent in Hendry County, also working with Charlotte, Collier, Lee and Glades counties on sugar cane, other rotational crops and pest management. The director's revolving door has "been a problem for the Highlands County extension office," Baucum acknowledged. "There's been so much turnover, it's hard for the community to know who's there. It's better when there is some level of trust." Although an offer has been made and accepted, "It's not a done deal yet," Baucum said. The bureaucracy of the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is involved. "We're still working out the finer details of my current responsibilities." Royce said he and others in the agriculture community have spoken with IFAS about stabilizing the Highlands Office. Even so, Royce said, "I now have more faith in the extension office than I have had for quite a while." firstname.lastname@example.org 863-386-5828