What is in this article?:
- At 97, Victor Guzman still is building better veggies
- Peru sponsored his education
- Had frequent job offers
- Strong work ethic
• “The big boss, the dean of research, said to me, ‘Go solve problems.’ So, whatever problem they had, I had to take it on.”
• Now 97 years old,Victor Guzman'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.
VICTOR GUZMAN, at 97,
is still looking for ways
to make better vegetables.
Had frequent job offers
As Guzman’s reputation as a horticulturist and plant breeder spread, job offers came with some frequency. He politely considered them ... and turned them all down.
“I never moved and am I ever glad I didn’t. I was too busy here to think about those things — there was always lots to do, lots of work, lots of publications to write. I love Belle Glade. It has been a great home for me, and a wonderful place to work. And the people are nice.”
In 2009, Guzman gave $100,000 to endowthe Lake Okeechobee Muck Rat Nation Scholarship Fund for the Palm Beach Community College Foundation. It allows two students per semester to attend the local community college.
His inspiration was a newspaper article about problems facing young African-American males in Belle Glade: low high school graduation rates, coupled with high rates of imprisonment and bleak job prospects.
At the time, he called the gift, “Only a drop of water in a vast ocean of need, but it is my wish that it will become a vast river of hope.”
During his years of working, he put a little money aside from each paycheck, planning to eventually do something meaningful for the area.
These days, Guzman spends much of his time working on lettuce nutrition issues and developing new lettuce varieties. He enjoys showing the occasional visitor around his greenhouse, explaining how he does it, hoping to find one winner amid thousands of cultivars — if he’s lucky.
When he came to the Glades,almost no lettuce was grown here, and the lettuce one farmer stubbornly tried growing year-after-year failed every time.
“There was an entomologist, Tom Carpenter, originally from Wisconsin, who worked for Billy Rogers and Mutt Thomas at South Bay Growers. Billy Rogers would plant 10 acres of lettuce year after year and not harvest anything. The market for lettuce was poor or non-existent.
“Dr. Carpenter took a vacation back in Wisconsin and visited a farmer named Herald Gatzke, who was on a little piece of muck land and was dedicated to lettuce. He talked to Gatzke about coming to Belle Glade to try growing lettuce, and Gatzke sent his two sons here to do it. They brought their equipment and grew romaine and head lettuce in early spring and early fall because lettuce dislikes hot weather.”
The Gatzkes’ lettuce experiment worked. They hung around the Glades a few years in the early 1960’s, Guzman says, farming both in Florida and Wisconsin.
“We learned from them. They brought huge machines here that made beds, put down fertilizer and planted, all at the same time. The Gatzkes invented a lettuce seed planter that was new to us.
“At the station, we were not exactly working in that area at the time. The main crops farmers grew here were things like celery, corn, radishes and green beans, and we worked on whatever problems they had. But, the Gatzkes showed us how to do something new. The elder Gatzke was very progressive and he figured out lots of things.”
Though the Gatzkes left the Glades, Guzman’s interest in lettuce continued to grow, and he worked on breeding superior varieties tailored to Glades conditions.
“We have lots of diseases here that affect lettuce,” he says. “Our climate is so variable, it’s not suitable for producing lettuce all the time. Lettuce loves cool nights and warm days, and we don’t always have that.
“We have a challenge competing with California lettuce; in general, California’s climate is much better for lettuce. So, we had to work a lot to get varieties that would grow well here. Now, we produce lettuce that is as good as grows anywhere — we have better varieties and farmers have learned the right way to do it.”
A Glades-area lettuce growers groupfunds much of Guzman’s breeding work now.
“Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t, but we keep trying. I have a greenhouse full of plants we’re evaluating. Some farmers grow my lettuce. Some don’t. I never tell them what to grow; it’s up to them. I show them what the lettuce is, then it’s their decision.
“The lettuce industry here is pretty good sized. The only vegetable crop that surpasses it in the Glades is sweet corn. The farmers give me the help I need.”
TKM Farms is one of the area’s biggest lettuce growers. Steve Basore, a partner in the company with his brothers, says Guzman is key to the industry’s success.
“We owe an awful lot to Dr. Guzman’s research,” Basore says. “We have a lot of admiration for him. It’s pretty amazing that he’s still at it.”
Rick Roth, whose Roth Farms produces lettuce, among other crops, agrees that Guzman’s vision and drive have been vital to the business.
“To me, it’s that he’s been steady, that he understands what we need, and he’s always looking for ways to find it. He’s constantly looking at things to explore, working to find the right answers.