Local News

Taking dad's footsteps

SEBRING Highlands County has a new citrus agent, Laurie Hurner, and if you think her name sounds familiar, you're right. She is taking up the mantle of leadership that her father, Tim Hurner, held until his retirement In December. "Dad had over 40 years experience at the Highlands County Extension Office," said Hurner. Her father served in a variety of positions: 4-H agent, citrus agent and executive director at the extension offices.
"I'll never fill his shoes but to carry on a legacy.I'm honored," she said. Coming from a fifth-generation Florida citrus family, the Highlands County native said it always felt like a natural fit to work in the industry. She earned her business degree from Florida Southern College and her master's degree in agricultural education and communication from the University of Florida. She has worked in jobs related to the citrus industry since graduation. As a field representative for Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest grower organization, Hurner worked for more than 10 years in 14 different counties, handling industry issues, educating consumers and working with South Florida Water Management District and other government agencies. "I'm looking forward to working with Laurie to serve the growers of Highlands County, and I know with her experience and knowledge of the citrus industry, she'll do a great job," said Florida Representative Tom Rooney, whose Sebring office is adjacent to the extension offices at the Bert J. Harris Agricultural Center. Highlands County is the state's third-largest citrus producer, and Hurner believes it was her knowledge of the local industry and area growers that got her hired when she applied through the University of Florida. In an office filled with industry manuals, family photos and a painting of a basket of ripe Valencia oranges given to her by a friend, Hurner said that every day of her job since taking over June 17 has been exciting and different. Whether she is planning for upcoming grove educational workshops, giving advice on citrus to the Master Gardeners, working with the Highlands Youth Citrus Program, catching up on paperwork or inspecting trees in a hands-on experience with a grove owner, she is passionate about her work. It was a two year Wedgwood Leadership program for members of the agricultural industry that Hurner completed in 2010 that she credits with changing her into "a stronger leader and better listener." The program that culminated in a 17-day trip to China to see how agricultural businesses are operated in Asia changed Hurner's perception of world business. She saw hardworking people accomplishing a lot with very little. "It makes you appreciate where you come from and what you have," she said. "We grow a safe, significantly superior product, and you want that," stressed Hurner of Florida's citrus crops. On Aug. 14 and 15, Hurner will represent Highlands County at the University of Florida booth at the 2013 Citrus Expo at the Lee Civic Center in North Fort Myers. Seminars will cover production systems, state regulations, fruit processing, psyllid spraying and managing diseases like black spot, canker and greening. Greening is a bacterial disease spread by psyllid insects that has damaged trees and plagued Florida groves. While ongoing scientific research has produced some methods to help manage the disease, Hurner thinks it will be the expertise of grove owners who know their trees and product that will lead to an ultimate solution. "We do plan to continue the grower's forum started by my father," she noted of the quarterly breakfast meetings that are well-attended by area growers and their management teams. Deeply involved with the community, Hurner is on the board of the Mason Smoak Foundation, is a member of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, Highlands County Cattlewomen, attends Grace Bible Church and is the chairperson of UF's agricultural education and communication department advisory committee. She also recently joined the Florida Association of County Agricultural Agents. "The Highlands County growers are an awesome group of folks. I'm so lucky to have a job I love," said Hurner. "I wouldn't want to do anything else."