Robert C. Koo (1921)
Lake Alfred Citrus Research & Education Center
Low fFow Irrigation
Florida Citrus Mutual
Robert C. Koo was born in Shanghai, China, in 1921 to a Christian family. He spent most his childhood in the Chinese cities of Beijing and Nanking. His family had always expected him to attend college, and when the time came he chose to attend college in the United States. In 1940, he enrolled in Tennessee Junior College in Martin, before finishing his Bachelor of Science Degree at Cornell University.
After graduation in 1944, he entered the armed forces during the height of World War II. He served in the United States Navy attached to the Marine Corps, first at Camp Pendleton, and later overseas in Guam and China. He finished his service in 1947 and entered the University of Florida as a graduate student, earning a Master’s Degree in Agriculture in 1950 and a Ph.D. in 1953. After his graduation, Koo became an interim assistant at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred Florida, beginning a relationship with the institution that would last for almost four decades.
During his time at the research center, Koo established himself as a true pioneer in citrus research. His most prestigious work came in the field of irrigation, for which he conducted countless studies from the 1960s to the 1980s. He observed the use of irrigation abroad and designed numerous experiments to show that irrigation could be beneficial for production in all trees, not just those that were dying or suffering from drought conditions as was believed at the time. Even in years of above average rainfall, Koo showed that yield could be improved and increased financial returns could be had by using regular irrigation, owing to the fact that most soil in Florida does not hold water very well. He saw low flow irrigation as the wave of the future and urged entrepreneurs to go into business selling the new systems.
Aside from proving the viability of irrigation, he worked to define the practices and requirements for irrigation scheduling and rates. His work in the revolutionary Conserv II project in Orange County enabled Florida citrus growers to successfully use treated municipal wastewater for irrigation, and water reclamation projects nationwide began using Koo’s work as a model. Before the work of Robert C. Koo, irrigation had been seen only as a last resort. His efforts made irrigation a staple of Florida agriculture.
Koo also performed extensive research on mineral nutrition, helping to establish a set of requirements for mineral and minor needs of different citrus varieties, as well as optimum application schedules. He also established leaf analysis as a method of determining nutritional status. He detailed his findings in over one hundred papers published while a researcher at the University of Florida.
Koo retired from the research center in 1990 but stayed active in the citrus world. As an owner of a small grove near Lake Wales, he was a member of Florida Citrus Mutual and was elected as a director on the organization’s board two months after his retirement in 1990, and he ended up staying with the organization until the 1995-1996 season. He also acted as a consultant to Goemar Products, for whom he worked to improve tangerine varieties before and after his retirement. He also served as part of the Waverly Growers Cooperative on several occasions, most notably as Second Vice President in 1995-1996.
Koo was also a family man, and he and his wife Margaret had three sons and numerous grandchildren. Koo shared his citrus knowledge throughout countless countries during his career. For his work both in Florida and abroad, he was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1990.