Richard N. Raid, Ph.D.
While volunteering at his child’s elementary school, Richard Raid saw the need for environmental awareness. So, he started Student SOAR -- Sharing Our Agricultural Roots -- as a school gardening program. His passion for teaching and the outdoors inspires students and instills in them an appreciation of the importance of agriculture.
“My original intent was simply to establish some gardens at schools so that kids could actually see how vegetables are grown, where their food was coming from,” Raid said. “Agriculture awareness is very important to me.”
Never anticipating the overwhelming response from the students and teachers, he quickly found the program blossoming far beyond a simple garden. Now more than 70 schools participate throughout Florida, most of which were established by Raid himself.
“We’ve earned awards because of Dr. Raid’s input,” said Kathy Picano, a teacher of gifted fifth-grade students at H.L. Johnson Elementary School in Royal Palm Beach. “My children have opened their eyes to the environment. They want to recycle. They want to help and they also want to find out more in careers of botany and zoology and environmental studies. I have many in college now and they come back to visit and they share with me the majors that they are pursuing. And it’s because of Dr. Raid.”
“I think it’s important that our youth -- as our future voters, the people that are going to be making the decisions in this state -- have a connection to agriculture,” Raid said. “They need to realize its importance, not just from a food standpoint, but also from an environmental standpoint.”
A tireless educator, he has volunteered thousands of hours of his own time. Whether working in the schools or with the Boy Scouts or Audubon Society, it’s important to Raid to let people know that agriculture and the environment can not only co-exist, they actually benefit one another.
“As a person that feels that everybody has a responsibility to this earth and the environment, I feel a responsibility to agriculture,” Raid said. “I love working with agriculture, feeling that I’m a part of the food system, providing food for our tables. I just simply love being involved.”
As a University of Florida professor of plant pathology, Raid is based at UF’s Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade. His research includes assisting area vegetable growers in diagnosing and controlling crop disease.
In 1994, Raid suggested to a high school student he was mentoring that using the Barn Owl as rodent control would make a good science fair project. A single owl consumes more than 1,000 rats, mice, and marsh rabbits each year. They built boxes for the owls to nest in and placed them near the sugar cane fields.
When Raid heard that Wayne Boynton, a Belle Glade area sugarcane grower, was using a similar practice on his farm, Raid and his student visited Boynton and learned from his ideas. The science fair project won awards and the experiment led to something much bigger.
Now, all of Florida’s major sugarcane producers and the area’s leafy vegetable growers participate in the program. The nesting boxes have 100 percent occupancy and all of the growers have reported much-needed relief from the rodents that can cause $30 million a year in crop losses. It’s a win-win situation: barn owls now have ideal nesting habitat; growers benefit from having fewer rodent pests; and the environment is exposed to less chemical rodenticide. The area now has some of the highest concentrations of Barn Owls in the United States.
“In the past, farmers would spend maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly on chemical rodenticides to try to control the rodent problems that infested our fields,” Raid said. “Having Barn Owls to maintain this control is a tremendous cost benefit to them and it’s also lessening the impact that those chemicals might have on the environment.”
Florida’s Barn Owl Program has been featured in National Geographic, the PBS series, “Nature,” and on CNN. It has drawn national and international attention and has led to efforts to implement the project in other parts of the United States, Central America, South Africa, and Australia.
What began as a science fair project has become a full-fledged research program, with scientists studying the impact of Barn Owls on rodent populations in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The project is also an excellent vehicle for teaching agriculture, zoology and ecology to students. Raid knew that adding the Barn Owls to SOAR’s curriculum would stimulate the students’ sense of wonder, and they have immersed themselves in the habits, physiology, and life of the owl.
“Nature is just wondrous in terms of all it can offer to these students,” Raid said. “You see the enthusiasm and curiosity come alive that just doesn’t blossom when you’re just simply book learning.”
The annual culmination of the students’ studies is the “Owl Prowl.” The students are invited to the Everglades Research and Education Center during nesting season. They observe the owls in boxes they have built and track the owl’s nocturnal hunting habits. They become sleuths and learn anatomy at the same time by dissecting owl pellets.
“One thing I’ve learned in working with kids is, cute is good but gross is better,” Raid said. “So if you’ve got the regurgitated remains of rodents, you might get a few ‘ews’ and ahs initially, and then pretty soon they want to learn more and become more involved. And then they just can’t wait to dissect these pellets to see exactly what those barn owls have eaten.”
Perhaps most of all, the students gain self-esteem knowing that they’re having a beneficial impact on the world around them.
“It’s something that I really relish,” Raid said. “Just the interactions, the feeling of enthusiasm and seeing the interest in science and nature just come alive in students. I love that.”