Sixty years ago, Victor Guzman came to the fertile muck fields of western Palm Beach County with a clear but broad mission. Then a newly minted University of Florida assistant horticulturist assigned to the Everglades Research and Education Center at Belle Glade, he was directed to find ways to help Glades vegetable growers, however he could.

It mattered little to his boss whether Guzman’s help came in the form of plant breeding, weed and pest control, or fertility. Guzman took to the job like a gator to the swamp.

Right away, he knew he was home, and he jumped to the task with a zeal bordering on obsession.

“The big boss, the dean of research, said to me, ‘Go solve problems.’ So, whatever problem they had, I had to take it on,” Guzman recalls.

Now 97 years old, he’s still at it, still at work most days, breeding new lettuce varieties and figuring ways to help growers solve problems. He officially retired in 1987, but couldn’t leave his work. His job was more than a job — it was a mission, and missions don’t stop with the turn of a calendar page.

“My mission changed on paper,” he says, “but the essence is still the same as it was in the beginning. If you want to work with vegetables and if you want to have a challenge, this is the place to be. I’m not specialized; I don’t know a lot about anything in particular. I like to be a generalist.”

Looking back at Guzman’s life, he didn’t seem destined to work with vegetables. Potatoes, maybe. He grew up in Peru, which is known for its potatoes. His father, a merchant who owned three farms operated by tenants, died when Guzman was three years old, turning his mother into a farm owner. Guzman’s weekend visits to the farms helped develop his interest in the science behind agriculture.

“That was 80 years or more ago,”he says. “I remember a year when potato blight hit Peru. They didn’t know how to control it. It was the same disease that is famous for destroying potatoes in Ireland, but nobody in Peru at that time knew what happened to the plants. They looked like they would produce a bumper crop, then they died.”

The young Guzman wondered what could have caused the disease. Weather conditions? Fungi? Some other mysterious thing?

“The potato originated in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia. South American people love potatoes. I still do — I could eat them every day. When something that big happens to potatoes there, especially at that time, it’s a huge problem,” he says.

A few years later, he studied agriculture in Lima, Peru’s capital city. After graduating in 1940, he studied horticulture at the University of Florida, earning a master’s degree in 1943. His Ph.D. in vegetable crops came in 1945 from Cornell University.