Sweet basil is one of America’s most popular culinary herbs, and for years, Florida growers have been producing it abundantly and with few problems.
Then, in 2007, a fungal disease known as basil downy mildew was first reported in the U.S. in Florida and caused massive crop losses. The disease, now found everywhere basil is grown, turns the leaves darker and makes the plant unmarketable.
Richard Raid, a plant pathologist at the University of Florida’s Everglades Research & Education Center in Belle Glade is one of dozens of scientists seeking a solution, such as developing resistant varieties and determining which fungicides work best.
“It probably came in on infected seed. Florida is one of the leading basil-producing states in the country. Before, the growers never had to spray. The disease changed the industry overnight,” Raid said. “We have made tremendous progress.”
Raid and other faculty members and graduate students showcased their work in the 800-acre center’s fields and laboratories on a recent morning. Visitors to the first Field Day held in three years rode in buses, vans and even on flat bed trailers with bales of hay as seats to hear 10-minute presentations about the projects.
Palm Beach County is famous for its sweet corn and sugar cane, but what’s not as well known is that behind the scenes scientists are working to improve the two biggest crops as well as such others as sod, snap beans, bell peppers, lettuce and rice. They zero in on the best ways to deal with weeds, insects and diseases and spend years developing new varieties.
The UF center’s lab conducts more than 8,500 soil tests a year to determine what nutrients it contains so farmers can be advised there’s a manganese deficiency or too much calcium, for example. The researchers are also looking for ways to increase production and innovate. Over the last decade the UF researchers have helped growers dramatically reduce phosphorus levels in drainage water, said Gregg Nuessly, acting center director.
Established in 1921 as the Everglades Experiment Station, the center is one of UF’s oldest. Armed with doctoral degrees in disciplines from agronomy to entomology, the 14 faculty members along with 90 staff members work to help keep agriculture profitable and sustainable, Nuessly said.
While sugar cane is king in the Everglades Agricultural Area, with about 400,000 acres in production, Nick Larsen, a senior biological scientist, is growing sugar beets. Sugar beets are normally grown in more northerly states such as North Dakota and Minnesota, but Larsen said there’s some production in Florida for cattle feed.
Larsen had several of the massive beets on display as he explained the beets are being looked at as a potential feedstock for ethanol and could be harvested to produce sugar. Since sugar beets are harvested as late as June after sugar cane harvesting is over, the crop could extend the use of the sugar mills in the Glades.
In the 70s and 80s the center released new sweet corn varieties called Supersweet. They’re still going storng, and this year senior biological scientist Roger Beiriger expects to release some new hybrids that are even sweeter, have a longer shelf life and field life.
Battling such insects as a stink bug that attacks Florida’s rice crop is the focus of entomologist Ron Cherry’s research. With their sucking mouthparts, the stink bugs can completely remove the grain’s content, reducing the crop, and also can cause the rice grains to become shriveled and have yellow and black spots.
“The rice does not look as good, and it isn’t marketable, ” Cherry said.
Cherry has found that controlling weeds as well as planting at certain times helps to reduce the the stink bug population. The stink bug Oebalus insularis was first reported in Florida rice in 2010, and that was the first time it was noted in commercial rice fields in the U.S.
While it might seem that using a fungicide, pesticide or herbicide might be the easiest way to eradicate the various plagues and pests that can ruin the crops, Nuessly said that’s not what farmers want to do.
“Some people seem to think that the growers just spray whatever they want to spray. Somebody doesn’t just bring a truckload of this stuff to their property line. They have to pay for it. They don’t want to spray if they don’t have to. The newer insecticides can run hundreds of dollars a gallon,” Nuessly said.
Palm Beach County is one of nation’s largest agricultural counties, with production valued at more than $1 billion a year.
Here is the breakdown by acres:
Sugar cane: 395,748
Vegetable crops: 25,754
Total agricultural acres : 460,443*
*Total includes other miscellaneous acres
Source: Palm Beach County Property Appraiser, 2014