How Is The Citrus FAST TRACK Program Faring?

In 2002, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

If we didn’t know better, we would think that Mr. Rumsfeld was a citrus grower planting experimental FAST TRACK selections.

In case you need a refresher: FAST TRACK is a system co-developed by UF/IFAS, Florida Foundation Seed Producers Inc. (FFSP), and New Varieties Development and Management Corp. (NVDMC) designed to enable growers and nurseries to engage with promising experimental UF/IFAS fresh citrus selections much earlier in the process.

Now that the oldest FAST TRACK trees are two years old, growers are looking for a barometer check on their performance. There is some fruit on some trees, but not all of the selections are fruiting. When the program was first launched, collaborative efforts were made to develop survey forms for gathering information about the selections. However, early interest was entirely focused on the fruit. We have yet to develop a means of gathering information about tree health and tree performance.

NVDMC reached out to many of the FAST TRACK growers and nurseries for a candid evaluation of the program. Growers have been responding and the results are interesting, though somewhat predictable. Nursery surveys were sent a few days later and results were not available by the deadline for this article. Nursery input will be revisited with FNGLA’s Citrus Nursery Division.

Here is a compilation of the most common answers to the grower survey questions:

What do you like most about the FAST TRACK Program?

• The opportunity to get experience with these selections soon after they are identified. I need answers and this trial helps keep me on the cutting edge.
• The option to roll the dice on commercial plantings — if I wish to do so.
• Being rewarded for my efforts with lower royalty and a production head-start, should any of my selections move to the commercial level.

What do you like least about the FAST TRACK program?

Inconsistencies. I often do not get the rootstocks that I ordered or the quantity of trees that I ordered. Though I understand that things can happen at the budwood or nursery stage, this makes it difficult to organize a structured trial. I get frustrated.
• Timing. I don’t get all of my selections at the same time. They trickle out as they are ready. It is troublesome to drive several hours to a nursery for a few trees knowing that I will have to do it again when the remainder of the order is ready. Not all nurseries deliver or ship.
Budwood. I like seeing the selections launched as soon as possible in the process, but I want a large supply of budwood available at the outset. What is the middle ground here?
Do I have all of my trees? Large growers are frustrated that NVDMC knows what was invoiced and what was paid, but not what was picked up from the nursery. There is no link between NVDMC and the nursery shipment schedule or inventories.

Are you satisfied with the information that you are able to glean from your FAST TRACK plantings, or do you have an expectation data will be collected from and made available from other sources?

Not satisfied: I expect to learn a great deal from my own plantings, but I am seeing issues and I have no way of knowing if I am the only one. Some have seen die-back, apparent rootstock incompatibilities, nutrition issues, chemical sensitivities, etc. Growers want a clearinghouse for information exchange. Some suggested an online forum where growers, breeders, and nurseries can post inquiries and share information. Others prefer a live gathering, while several would rather fill out a written survey.
Fool me once: Those who attended the open grower/nursery discussion on ‘Tango’ and ‘Sugar Belle’ production and packing are not eager to do it again. There were a lot of folks ready to listen and take notes, but not a lot of information was offered. A better mechanism is needed.
Expectation: I fully expect that NVDMC or FFSP or UF/IFAS will be conducting longer-term trials in parallel to the grower program. At some point, the industry will need actionable and published data. I don’t see this coming from the grower trials.

What kind of information would be most helpful?

• Nutrition guidance
• How to get early fruit set
• Fruit quality
• Tree size, health, and yield
• Rootstock guidance
• Pollination information. Is an outside pollen source needed? If so, which ones work best? Will these fruit under screen?

Will the experience and information gleaned from your trial trees be sufficient to support your future planting decisions relative to these selections?

There was no consistency in the answers to this question. Some will base their planting decisions entirely on their own experience; others say a private trial will pique their interest, but more data would be needed in order to support a commercial investment.

From what sources do you seek information about FAST TRACK selections?

By far, the most cited information source is the nursery, followed by other growers, larger formal trials, Extension, and publications.

General comments

• Appreciate the program and raw concept, but it needs fine tuning.
• Can we do this with one nursery? Multiple nurseries decrease the risk but complicates the program.
• Just about all of the new selections are better than what we are currently growing. I am left to balance an inferior known known with a hopefully superior known unknown. Help!
• I have a similar situation with the new oranges. I greatly appreciate that I can get them in the ground now. I plan to trial all that I can get my hands on — but I expect that someone is generating data on these at the same time on some larger scale and that this will be available.

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