Expert Systems Provide Dividends To Strawberry Growers

Risk and uncertainty from weather, price, and other factors have always been a challenge for agricultural producers. In the past decade, changing weather patterns have affected agricultural production around the world. In some cases, global climate change created large scale disasters that could not be mitigated. In other cases, climate change caused increased fluctuations in weather patterns, specifically in precipitation and temperature. The negative effects of these challenges can in some aspects be mitigated by technology (i.e., expert systems). The Strawberry Advisory System (SAS) is one example of an expert system developed at the University of Florida that helps to mitigate strawberry yield loss resulting from pressure of fungal diseases due to weather.


Whipping Weather Woes
Traditionally, growers have used routine application of fungicides to fight these diseases. Fungicides were generally applied on a calendar-based schedule, following a once a week application program. However, there are several drawbacks to this application method. First, if the conditions are not conducive to disease development, the unnecessary fungicide applications waste chemicals and labor and increase production costs. Second, if weather conditions deteriorate unexpectedly, the farmer may be unable to be proactive in managing the increased disease risk because of label restrictions limiting the number of applications over a specified period of days. Third, unnecessary fungicide applications contribute to building disease resistance, and a reduction in fungicide use helps to control this problem.
To optimize the timing of fungicide application and better manage weather- and climate-related risks, UF/IFAS researchers, led by Natalia Peres at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) in Balm, designed the web-based SAS for producers in the Southeast U.S. In contrast to the traditional calendar-based application system, the timing of fungicide applications under the SAS-based method are based on leaf wetness duration and average temperature during the wetness period in the field. These two factors are used by SAS to predict disease-conducive conditions and alert growers when fungicides should be applied to mitigate disease risk.

Proof Positive
Researchers at GCREC conducted six-year production trials for both Botrytis and anthracnose diseases. The results of those trials provided data we used to estimate the impacts on profits when using the SAS-based management system relative to the traditional calendar-based strawberry fungicide management system.
Our results indicate that SAS significantly reduced crop losses (by 22% on average) and fungicide use (by 44% on average), while increasing profit (by 33% on average) to the grower. Assuming an average Florida strawberry farm of 26 acres, the value of SAS was estimated to be $1.7 million over a 10-year production period. Clearly, technology can be the difference between profits and losses for Florida growers.
In economics, we often hear the phrase “competition breeds innovation and encourages efficiency.” Given the struggles of weather and competition, this technology is helping our growers survive and thrive.