Former U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Louis Fitzgerald never took an interest in agriculture before enrolling in the Veterans Florida Agriculture Program, but after combining hands-on training with his entrepreneurial experience, he sees the endless opportunities the industry offers.

The South Florida native joined the Marines in 1997, and his duties included logistics, purchasing/contracting, budgeting/fiscal, and recruiting during his nearly 10-year enlistment; stationed along the West Coast and Okinawa, Japan before returning to Florida to the Pensacola, Naples, and Fort Myers areas and transitioning out of the military in 2006.

Fitzgerald spent the next few years working toward his master’s degree in finance and found a job with the Miami VA Medical Center writing government procurement contracts. The experience with the federal acquisition process proved valuable, and after working with other Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) members, Fitzgerald decided to leave in 2014 and found Nexus Universal — a Miami Beach-based consulting firm and government services contractor.

“I’ve always had a passion for entrepreneurship and was always looking for a way to get out there and start my own thing,” Fitzgerald said.

It took a couple of years to land the first government contract, but Fitzgerald got the ball rolling. Looking for ways to help grow his business, he reached out to the Small Business Development Center and SCORE, who recommended connecting with Veterans Florida to see what veteran resources were available.

Fitzgerald soon opened an email and read about another veteran who went through the Veterans Florida Agriculture Program — a six-month paid fellowship in partnership with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) offering veterans the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in Florida’s agriculture industry.

“I’ve never been much of an outdoor person, and when I was in service I used to hate going out to the field,” Fitzgerald said. “But I thought ‘Let me give it a shot. You never know; maybe this could be something exciting.’”

Fitzgerald enrolled at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center (FLREC) in Davie and started his fellowship on June 2 with turf management training for golf courses and athletic fields.

“There are so many paths you can take in agriculture and there’s a lot more that goes into each one than you might expect.”

The experience has been eye-opening for Fitzgerald after seeing how much of the work takes place underneath the turf using machines like an Air2G2 and Dryject, which inject air and sand into the soil of the grass to help it breathe after heavy foot traffic and prevent soil compaction, which reduces the amount of oxygen, water, and nutrients grass can receive.

Louis’ hands-on training in turf management at UF/IFAS.

Louis’ hands-on training in turf management at UF/IFAS.

Another highlight of his training involves collecting pests, like the Myndus Crudus, to study their mating habits and determine the most cost-efficient ways to use pesticides to prevent them from killing crops.

“I definitely see things from a different perspective,” Fitzgerald said, adding that he’s looking forward to upcoming trainings on algae and hydroponics. “There are so many paths you can take in agriculture and there’s a lot more that goes into each one than you might expect.”

FLREC Associate Center Director Dr. Kimberly Moore said she’s a strong advocate of the “learn-by-doing” approach to teaching and believes that method better prepares veterans to succeed in agriculture. In turn, veterans get the opportunity to contribute to the facilities’ scientific research.

“By rotating through different labs, Louis and other veterans are able to learn different skills from managing turfgrass and landscape plants to laboratory techniques,” Dr. Moore said. “Each faculty member has a different skill set that they can share and teach in a learn-by-doing or hands-on environment. The other benefit is knowing that they have helped to advance the science in different fields of agriculture by lending their hands and energy to various research activities.”

“On a personal level, with this pandemic and all the negative stuff going on around the world, it’s a great way to disconnect and get away from it all.”

One of Fitzgerald’s biggest takeaways from the program is the academic institution’s positive learning environment, and the instructors’ willingness to teach participants anything and everything about agriculture.

“I’ve linked up with organizations before that have been unwilling to share information, but this is not like that,” he said. “There’s no limitation on what you can learn and the instructors can always point you in the right direction.”

In the coming months, Fitzgerald plans to get his pesticide license and wants to connect with Farmer Veteran Coalition after finishing the agriculture program to get more training before running an agribusiness. As an entrepreneur, he advises: “Get as much training as you can because that’s the time to make mistakes and learn from them. Once you’re running a business, those mistakes are going to cost you.”

Louis Fitzgerald at Cherrylake’s Palm Farm in Ft. Pierce

Louis Fitzgerald at Cherrylake’s Palm Farm in Ft. Pierce

Fitzgerald’s ultimate goal is to either own a farm in Puerto Rico to help the island recover from Hurricane Maria or run an operation out of Florida to stay close to home; but wherever he chooses, Fitzgerald said he wants to get away from the “hustle and bustle of city life,” provide people with a healthy selection of organic food, and help veterans get into agriculture.

And for veterans considering a career or business in agriculture, Fitzgerald said he’s glad he took a “leap of faith” and is thankful to participate in the program after seeing the benefits it offers and how it creates a solid foundation to build upon.

“On a personal level, with this pandemic and all the negative stuff going on around the world, it’s a great way to disconnect and get away from it all,” Fitzgerald said. “Keep an open mind and take a step back to look at the big picture: The program doesn’t cost you anything, so if you have an interest in agriculture, it’s a win-win.”