Challenges for Florida specialty crop agriculture were a recurring theme on FFVAâ€™s recent Spring Regulatory Tour, as 22 representatives from state and federal regulatory agencies spent five days traveling across South Florida. At stops from Fort Myers to Belle Glade, the group learned about water management, Floridaâ€™s specialty crop production, and crop-protection chemicals used to fight plant pests and diseases.
Arranged and led for more than two decades by Dan Botts, FFVAâ€™s vice president of industry resources, the tour gives regulators from EPA, the Florida Department of Agriculture, and the stateâ€™s water management districts a chance to see a variety of crops and production practices firsthand.
Itâ€™s the first time some have ever visited a farm, and participants have the chance to talk extensively with growers about their pest management programs, water use, and other topics. By hearing from growers, these regulators are able to better understand how their decisions affect producersâ€™ ability to farm. For growers, itâ€™s a great opportunity to explain their production practices and the realities of producing food in an often harsh growing climate.
On A Roll
The tour kicks off with an overview of Florida water issues and a history of water management in South Florida. Participants also learn about the regionâ€™s unique soils in which sugar cane and vegetables are grown. Each stop involves an up-close look at crops. This year included sugar cane, potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, citrus, celery, radishes, turfgrass, and cut flowers. Many FFVA members are gracious enough to set aside a morning or afternoon to accommodate the group.
Hosts for the tour this year were Duda Farm Fresh Foods, King Ranch, Barron Collier/Silver Strand, Lipman, Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, Florida Crystals Corp., Southwest Florida Water Management District, American Farms, and Syngenta Flowers. The tour also included the Old Collier Golf Course, where participants heard about the facilityâ€™s use of water and chemicals, and the Lee County Mosquito Control District, where participants got an overview of the countyâ€™s efforts to keep mosquitoes and the disease they carry in check. Plenty of time is allotted for discussion between the hosts and tour participants.
Demonstrations also are a big part of the itinerary. For example, after hearing how sugar cane and citrus are planted, grown, and harvested, the group was shown how sophisticated precision equipment is used to apply chemicals in groves and fields.
Itâ€™s no surprise that a good portion of time is spent on sugar cane, since more than 400,000 of the Everglades Agricultural Areaâ€™s (EAA) 500,000-plus acres produce sugar. Growers and several UF/IFAS researchers from the Everglades Research and Education Center explained the best management practices program and the measures growers in the EAA take to reduce the amount of fertilizers and pesticides they use. Those efforts have resulted in an average reduction of phosphorous to the tune of about 55%. Participants also learned about research under way looking at how to reduce the amount of phosphorous in sediment and organic matter in the farmsâ€™ irrigation ditches.
Other challenges were presented. The group heard about the severe effects of canker and HLB on Floridaâ€™s citrus industry from John Hoffman of Barron Collier/Silver Strand. At the height of its production, the company had about 700,000 trees, Hoffman said. Since then, the diseases have taken a heavy toll â€” reducing that number by about 15%. Whatâ€™s more, since HLB was first discovered in the companyâ€™s groves in 2005, the cost of inputs has tripled, Hoffman said.
Dr. Phil Stansly of UF/IFAS discussed research he is conducting with a team of researchers from the Everglades Research and Education Center on a 10-acre plot. The team is studying the effectiveness of various nutrient applications on controlling the citrus psyllid, the insect that carries the HLB virus.