Bob Knight is apologizing for getting all worked up, which for him means talking even faster than usual and raising his voice a little, but not in a way that would suggest he was mad. "Sorry for getting carried away," says the botanist, leaning earnestly over the steering wheel of the rusty, sunflower-yellow golf cart that propels him around the grounds of the United States Department of Agriculture's Subtropical Horticulture Research Station off Old Cutler Road in South Dade. Knight has spent 32 years of his working life as a research horticulturist here, but federal officials now want the decades-old facility closed. "I shouldn't get so excited, but if we had been sitting on our hands, then we should be closed down. But I'm the least productive one here, and I don't do too badly." He flips the remaining moplike strands of white hair from one side of his balding pate to the other and back again -- a nervous habit -- and raps the front of the cart with his fist for emphasis.
Since officially retiring four weeks ago, the characteristically unassuming Knight has been agitating against the USDA's pending proposal to close the facility, as have dozens of other horticulturists, farmers, agricultural scientists, preservationists, historians, private citizens, and politicians. The center, set on 208 acres of fields dotted with several clusters of small research labs, greenhouses, and tool sheds, is among nineteen stations slated for closure around the U.S. and abroad under the department's Clinton-induced budget pruning.
Opened in 1923, the center has distinguished itself as a "dumping ground," as Knight puts it, for tropical flora, particularly fruit and ornamental plants. Plant collectors worldwide sent species to be grown, tested, and then distributed for use as food, ornamental, medicinal, and industrial crops. In recent years, scientists at the center have turned to the collection of germ plasm A the reproductive part of a plant that contains the genes A and developing plants that are resistant to certain pests and diseases. The work has been instrumental in establishing certain crops in economically developing countries around the world, including more resilient varieties of coffee in Central and South America and avocados in equatorial Africa and India.
But all that will come to an end if the USDA's plan to close the center by October 1 is approved by Congress. The land would be handed over to the U.S. General Services Administration, which would either make it available to a state or Dade agency or to private entities, while personnel and ongoing programs would be relocated to other USDA research facilities around the nation. The recommendation has been forwarded to the Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and Related Agencies, which will evaluate it as part of Clinton's proposed 1995 budget.
A memorandum prepared earlier this year by two USDA Agricultural Research Service officials recommended that the facility be closed because Hurricane Andrew had severely damaged the facility and its orchards and disrupted research. Associate Deputy Administrator Wilda Martinez and Area Director Mary Carter explained in their memo that "unrelenting urban encroachment" also necessitates the closure.
"Bullshit!" Knight spits. "This is all a cover story, what I call 'Mary's pack of lies.'" Knight says that contrary to Carter's and Martinez's assertions, the facility's production of several fruits has returned to pre-Andrew levels, while others are rebounding. And while the facility was heavily damaged by the hurricane, most of the structures have been rebuilt with federal money. To Carter's claims of urban encroachment, Knight responds: "This would've been valid 30 years ago, when unincorporated area was developing rapidly. 'Unrelenting'? That seems a bit poetic to me." (Neither Carter nor Martinez was available for comment.)
The facility's best hope for survival may be rooted in its historic value. According to Margot Ammidown, Metro-Dade's historic preservationist, the research station includes several small oolitic limestone buildings constructed as part of a Depression-era public works project, as well as a remnant of the pioneer trail from Coconut Grove to the Cutler neighborhood in South Dade. The property, which is listed on the Dade County Historic Survey, was originally opened as a World War I air base known as Chapman Field. Earlier this month, the state's historic preservation officer, George Percy, wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy reminding him that under the National Historic Preservation Act the department is responsible for ensuring that the site is thoroughly evaluated for historic merit before it is closed. According to Percy, the station and its buildings are likely to meet criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, which would provide the site with protection from demolition and development. A citizens' group, including farmers and agricultural scientists in Dade, has formed to protest the closure. Also, members of Dade's delegation to Congress jointly signed a letter to Espy expressing their concern about the plan.
Knight and others are leery of the USDA's intentions and suspect there are darker political forces at work. The botanist speculates that developers may be putting pressure on federal officials to unload the land. "Why else?" he asks. "The government never moves with this speed unless there's a war on." Indeed, the phone lines at the research station and the Department of Agriculture's headquarters in D.C. have been jammed with inquiries from developers, according to sources at both locations. Situated amid some of Dade's most affluent residential areas and adjacent to the posh Deering Bay Estates condo and golf complex, the land is certainly valuable. Common speculation among the research center's supporters is that the Codina-Bush Group, powerful Republican Party supporters and developers of Deering Bay, have been lobbying the USDA to give up the land.
An Agricultural Research Services spokesman denies that private developers have had anything to do with the organization's decision to close the South Dade center. And a spokesman for Codina-Bush, while admitting he's heard the rumors, asserts that neither Armando Codina nor Jeb Bush has exerted any pressure on the federal government. (Nor, he points out, would they necessarily be in an advantageous position to do so, given the party affiliation of the current administration.) "We were very, very, very happy with the property being what it was all those years because it was a green neighbor and a secure neighbor," says David Pearson. "Just a few scientists wandering around there once in a while, people from The Far Side. Our number-one interest is the maintenance of the property as it was. But having said that," Pearson quickly adds, "if the government chooses to pull out, we'd be pretty stupid not to want to have the property ourselves. If it comes up for grabs, we'd certainly like to grab it." He says the land would be suitable for new recreational facilities, including a driving range.
The Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation Department is also eyeing the land. "We are interested in the site in the event it does close," confirms Marty Washington, chief of property management and acquisition for Parks and Recreation. Washington says that if the department did acquire the land, he would hope that some agricultural research could continue within the context of a public park. "Plant-related groups, flower clubs could also consolidate their activities there," he speculates.
Knight and his colleagues would just as soon the place were left alone. "That alakao over there," he says, stopping his golf cart and pointing toward a slender tree towering 50 feet over the complex. "It came from the Philippines in 1926 and survived the 1945 hurricane, the 1960 hurricane, and so on. It's a tough old tree. I'd really hate to see it go."
In another section of the facility, Knight gestures toward a small stagnant stream thick with water plants. "There are otters in there, and wood ducks, even though it looks pretty bad," says the botanist. A pileated woodpecker flies by. "Life tries to hang on," Knight concludes as he jolts the cart forward. "In spite of everything.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.