Back in 2006, when a good many strawberry growers viewed the state’s voluntary vegetable best management practices (BMPs) program with a skeptical eye, Ronnie Young decided to give the program a shot. The grower operates Three Star Farms in partnership with Marvin Brown across five locations around Dover.
According to Jemy Hinton, UF/IFAS BMP implementation team coordinator, Young’s willingness to participate in the BMP program has helped her encourage other strawberry growers to sign up and participate.
“Ronnie was one of my first strawberry growers to sign up for the program, and he has been an outstanding team player for the strawberry industry as well,” says Hinton. “Today, I’d say our strawberry industry is the poster child for BMPs. We have more than half of the strawberry acres enrolled in the BMP program, and the growers are doing a really good job protecting the environment around their farms.
Hinton says that growers benefit by being a part of the BMP program because they are presumed to be in compliance with the Department of Environmental Protection’s water quality regulations when they implement the applicable BMPs on their farms.
“We are encouraging all farmers to get involved with the BMP program because there are a number of advantages for growers who participate on a voluntary basis and the issues involved are extremely important to the environment,” she says.
Growers utilizing BMPs can expect more than just environmental benefits; they can expect cost savings through more efficient uses of inputs.
“As far as fertility, we do soil samples on an annual basis and broadcast our soil amendments like lime and dolomite when we are bedding up,” says Young. “Then we do all of our fertility through the drip tube. Basically, every time we irrigate, we fertigate. We are not putting a large amount of fertilizer in the beds — just what the plants need.”
Young has worked with UF/IFAS on studies of how nitrogen moves through the soil profile on his farm. The research showed that nitrogen was not moving below the beds and was staying within the root zone of the plants, ensuring that fertilizer was not leaching.
“Growers have saved a huge amount of money by switching over to fertigation practices,” says Hinton. “They used to apply a cold mix of fertilizer into their beds, and would put more than the plants needed just for insurance purposes. Today, they are putting out the exact amount the plants need. In addition to saving money, they are seeing less disease pressure sometimes associated with over fertilization.”
Young’s BMP checklist is marked with many yeses throughout all aspects of the farm. A few of the practices include the use of predators and maintaining beneficial insects in fields for pest control, use of tailwater ponds, planting filter strips, using setbacks near wetlands, and the use of scouts for precise application of inputs.
Three Star Farms has been a go-to partner for UF/IFAS researchers looking to test its varieties, products, and techniques in the field. Over the past few seasons, Young has been working with Dr. Craig Chandler with a new variety he developed called Radiance. But, his work with UF/IFAS extends to many other facets of the farm.
“Working with UF/IFAS helps keep our business fresh and helps us learn about new methods and technology, but it also helps the university,” says Young. “They are doing work that is vital to Florida agriculture, so anything that we can do to support them and their work, we are going to do it.”
“Three Star Farms has always been on the cutting edge of production and technology,” says Hinton. “Ronnie’s cooperation with our research efforts has been a great asset in identifying better ways to grow strawberries in Florida.”
Going Beyond Methyl Bromide
Young is like other growers who have relied on methyl bromide for years for control of nematodes, weeds, and insect pests. It was akin to a miracle product that made vegetable production much easier in Florida’s pest-ripe environment. But with its phase-out, growers are being forced to search for alternatives.
Young says he has been experimenting with methyl bromide replacements for the past seven years. Their allotment of methyl bromide is down to about 45% of the farm’s acreage and that number will steadily decline over time.
“If there was a product out there that was as easy to use and preformed as well as methyl bromide, we wouldn’t be using methyl bromide,” Young says. “There is just nothing out there that will do the same job, but we’ve been experimenting with a number of different products and approaches.”
One product that Young has been working with is InLine (1,3-dichloropropene and chloropicrin, Dow AgroSciences) applied through the dual drip tube that runs in each bed. The product is a soil fungicide and nematocide. He also has experimented with shank-applied Telone (1,3-Dichloropropene, Dow AgroSciences) and Midas (Iodomethane, Arysta LifeScience). Young says with any of these new products, he will be more selective in applications in the future.
“With methyl bromide, you were getting grass and weed control, so you were picking up nematode problems as you covered your acres with methyl bromide,” he says. “In the absence of methyl bromide, we are looking at precision sampling for nematodes in fields, and we will only spot treat those areas that have problems.”
Young currently uses Auto-Farm guidance and steering technology in his land-preparation work. He is looking to integrate the technology into his spot treatments for nematodes in the future.