Monday, September 28, 2020

Ever Heard of The Southwest Florida Research and Education Center?


It was a low-key announcement of an Agriculture Literacy Day, but it caught my eye. The event was held in Immokalee at the UF/University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center on November 14. Their Mission: Increasing Agricultural Literacy for ages PreK-Grade 12 in Florida, and additionally, teach the future generation where their food, fiber and natural resources come from.

Programs offered included School Garden Grants, Teacher Grants, Teacher Workshops and Awards, Free PreK–Grade 12 Lessons and Activities, Science Demonstrations, Citrus Pathology, Entomology (insects), the opportunity to observe presentations from college researchers from the University of Florida, tours and lots of information related to agriculture. It was a fascinating journey into a world that I rarely hear about, much less visit and that’s what made it so rewarding.

There are over 600 acres where the agricultural testing is conducted, this photo shows effective weed control.

Here are some of the highlights of this exciting, informative and well-organized event.

The Weed Science Program conducts research, diagnosis and management of weeds with particular focus on the crops that are commonly grown commercially in Immokalee and surrounding areas, including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, citrus, watermelons and squash. You should see what they’re doing to lessen the detrimental effects of weeds on the produce—unique strategies, like this.

The researchers have discovered that there are better ways to control weeds around the produce and trees than weed killer, which over time can infiltrate produce, waterways, our and drinking water. Take a guess what one new deterrent is: STEAM! Yes, they blast the weeds with steam, and it kills the weeds without the poison used in the past. My only question was, “Why didn’t we think of this before?” Is it perfect? Not yet, but the researchers are working on perfecting the process so that there is no return of the weeds from residual seeds. Clever.

Are you able to describe what the roots of an orange tree look like? No? Well, neither could I, but they’ve found a method of extracting an entire tree with little damage to the tree, to analyze the circumference of the roots and where the best place for moisture and nutrients should be placed. If you know the span of the roots, you can administer nutrients where they will be most effective instead of wasting the nutrients, which would cost more money.

Robert Riefer is the Head Weed Scientist at UF/IFAS, and is incredibly knowledgeable about testing, maintaining control groups, and knows so much about Florida flora that it will make your head spin. He was one of the tour guides that showed the rest of us the “lay of the land” and what experiments are being conducted.

Another fascinating research project is to identify the pesty predators and parasites of Florida produce and how they can be thwarted. Maybe you’ve heard of Citrus Greening Disease and how it could decimate the citrus industry in Florida? Why should we care? It’s estimated that about $5 billion and over 30,000 jobs have been lost in our Sunshine State. 

This is an example of ineffective treatment.

There is no cure as of yet, but at FL-IFAS event, U of F researchers showed their on-going experiments with promoting root health, planting trees under what looks like foil, encapsulating the trunks of trees in plastic, to find ways to manage the Asian citrus psyllids, the eggs of which hatch into teeny insects that feed off the infected phloem in the citrus trees and contaminate other trees. So how did it start?

The infected phloem discovery started in China with a disease called HLB, which is a microbe called Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus or CLas. CLas reproduces and hides in the phloem (think veins and arteries) of the citrus trees. 

A positive piece of news is that the Sugar Belle, once created to start another variety of fresh fruit, is resistant to HLB. Out of experimentation comes something interesting. It’s a hybrid of the Minneola tangelo and the sweet clementine and, thanks to Barney Greene of Green River Citrus in Vero Beach, the Sugar Belle continues on a positive path, except for one problem. The Sugar Belle can still “harbor” CLas, so the teeny psyllid that feeds on the Sugar Belle can spread CLas to other trees.

Nian Wang of the University of Florida wants to create a citrus strain that can’t be infected by HLB at all. With resistant trees, there would be little or no CLas. So, the research continues as they try to “nip the concerns in the bud.”

I hope that some of my readers will recognize the intrigue, curiosity and brilliance discovered at a chance participation event and even try to broaden your horizons!

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