Highlands County’s new extension director Les Baucum has had a sweet career - literally. With almost 25 years’ experience in Florida sugarcane on top of 13 years in extension, he brings something a little different to an area peppered with orange trees and cows.
But Highlands County does grow some sugarcane, Baucum said, although the crop is much more prevalent in South Florida, where the 52-year-old worked for U.S. Sugar from 1990 to 2005. Baucum thinks there may be an opportunity for more local farmers in the heartland to diversify into this crop. In Palm Beach County, sugarcane is grown in organic soil with rice used as a cover crop, but sugarcane can be grown in sandy soil as well, he said.
“Some of our traditional areas of sugarcane have turned into water storage areas. That’s why sugar cane production is moving north. We have four sugar mills in Florida, and all of them have to have a certain amount of sugar to run economically efficiently,” Baucum said. The challenge would be transporting the crop to the mills in South Florida. He suggested the railway system could be accommodated to meet the need.
Baucum is an entomologist originally from Mississippi who also has a master’s in agriculture with a focus in agriculture and extension education. Both his parents were educators, and his grandfather was a subsistence farmer in Mississippi who grew the family’s food and bartered his crops for other goods and services. It was those influences that led him to a career in extension: Baucum worked for the Mississippi Cooperative Extension for almost three years and joined Florida extension in 2005 as a Regional Sugarcane/Agronomic Extension agent.
Even though he’s got a lot of sugarcane experience under his belt, Baucum’s expertise isn’t limited to the tasty member of the grass family. As an entomologist, his speciality is actually in plant pests. U.S. Sugar was a major owner of citrus groves during his tenure there, and Baucum worked extensively dealing with diseases affecting citrus trees. His work in extension has kept him abreast of the pest-management research regarding citrus’s latest plague: greening.
“We wish we had problems like we had 25 years ago,” the former plant pathologist said grimly, adding, “I think there are some things that are promising, but we’re a long ways off.”
Baucum started as interim Highlands County extension director in September and officially put the mantle on on May 9. He acknowledged that he has stepped into a position that has experienced a significant amount of volatility over the past eight years.
“When (the director position) came open this time I felt like it was an opportunity for me to step in and help to provide stability and leadership to help make the Highlands County extension office something the Highlands County citizens are proud of,” he stated.
Baucum, who resides in Clewiston and is a two-time past president of the local Elks benevolent association, remains a regional extension agent, serving Hendry and Glades as well as Highlands County. An Eagle Scout with one son studying sustainable agriculture at UF, Baucum said his first line of business as director is to build up his team of agents. He’s recently hired a 4-H agent and a livestock agent to fill those two empty positions.
Besides supporting his agents, next on his list is to get to the know the local producers. Said Baucum, “My goal is to meet all of the cattlemen, citrus growers, caladium growers and others within the county so that I can familiarize myself with their operations.”
Being able to combine education with a love of agriculture is what makes Baucum enjoy his job so much. “I couldn’t resist getting back into extension in 2005,” he said.