2019 Florida Spring Regulatory Tour Provides Invaluable Agricultural Experiences

Authors – Kathryn Homa (IR-4 Headquarters), Dan Kunkel (IR-4 Headquarters), Mike Aerts (Director, Scientific & Regulator Affairs, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association)

workers sticking cuttings into field at Syngenta Flowers
Syngenta Flowers: Sticking Cuttings

One plane ticket to Southwest Florida International Airport: $200…one pair of sunglasses: $10…one tube of sunscreen: $7…being able to spend the entire week “behind the scenes” viewing multiple facets of Southwest Florida agriculture…priceless.

During the week of March 25, individuals from multiple organizations including: the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (which sponsored the event), Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services / Division of Agricultural Environmental Services and Office of Agricultural Water Policy, Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, South Florida Water Management District, Florida Farm Bureau Federation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the IR-4 Project came together to learn about a wide array of regulatory challenges facing Florida’s agricultural industry.

Florida is a unique environment that grows a broad range of crops including many types of vegetables, citrus, sugarcane, tropical fruit, berries, other tree crops, environmental horticulture crops and turf. For this reason, it is known as a “specialty crop state”. They also have lots of mosquitoes to boot. These factors make it the perfect location to host a regulatory tour since professionals who have regulatory careers are able to witness firsthand many examples where agricultural public policy directly effects growers’ day-to-day activities. It also provides them with knowledge of industry issues and a network of individuals that can help them become advocates for specialty crop agriculture.

On Monday March 25, the day began with a presentation by the South Florida Water Management District regarding water regulation in the Lake Okeechobee region and south. The talk focused on how important water management has been throughout Florida’s history and how it continues to be a focus that directly affects agricultural operations. Florida continues to implement restoration and best management practices (BMPs) plans to improve the quality, quantity, timing, flow of water to maintain a sustainable water supply to meet environmental, urban, agricultural and flood protection needs. In addition, many tour stops throughout the week highlighted specific rules and regulations that they adhere to in order to maintain water quality. This is especially challenging as tropical storms and hurricanes affect the state yearly. The rest of the day focused on golf course pest and water management. The tour was located at Old Collier Golf Course, which is located on approximately 267 acres of mixed upland and wetland habitat that is bounded to the north by the Cocohatchee River and to the east, south and west by various forms of development. This was a unique location to visit since it is the first Audubon International Certified Gold Signature Cooperative Sanctuary golf course. This certification means that wildlife conservation, habitat enhancement, resource conservation, environmental improvement and sustainable development were planned as part of the design and implementation of the course. Since there is approximately 109 acres of connected native habitat, golfers and bird-watchers alike can view bald eagles, osprey, native reptiles and other flora and fauna. Tour participants learned about common golf course pests and pathogens including but not limited to dollar spot and mole crickets and new water management technology that is being used to maintain the course more efficiently, such as run off from adjacent areas (warehouse parking lots). Golf course management is also using a combination of biopesticides and conventional materials to treat the turf. Too bad we did not bring our clubs for a round on the beautiful course on a beautiful day.

On Tuesday, the day began with a tour of Syngenta Flowers, Incorporated in Alva, Florida, which is the major north American horticultural supplier of mums including 125 varieties of pot mums, 118 varieties of garden mums and 19 varieties of asters. Here, tour goers were able to learn about the many aspects of chrysanthemum cutting production including the development of starter material for cutting production, soil and bed preparation, direct sticking of cuttings into the field, pinching, verification of varieties, harvesting of cuttings and postharvest storage. Many tour participants were excited to learn how to stick and harvest cuttings. At this stop, it was stressed that quality was of their utmost priority. Practices at this site included the use of quality water, clean starter material via tissue culture in elite greenhouses (to keep pest out), a preventative spray program and scouting, fertility and water analysis, fumigation and strict sanitation protocols to prevent the spread of pathogens and insects.

In the afternoon, tour goers were exposed to sandland vegetable production, with a visit to Lipman Family Farms. This operation began when Max Lipman began buying and selling fresh produce on the streets of New York City in the mid-1930s. Later, the business became involved in production, packing and sales of produce. Today, the operation is the largest field tomato grower in North
America, with operations from the Eastern Shore of Virginia to Florida and California. These strategic locations ensure year-round production and sales. Tour participants were able to view crops at various stages of growth including tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant and squash. Many participants asked the grower excellent questions about production, rotation practices and common pests encountered in the field. The grower was also able to express his concerns about the need for more effective pest management options.

To fit all of the tour stops in on Wednesday, the bus departed early for a visit to Southern Gardens Citrus processing plant and production operation, under US Sugar Corporation. This stop was especially important since Florida has been devastated by Citrus Greening Disease caused by the bacterium Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus. Southern Gardens Citrus Holdings began planting citrus in 1986 and now owns a total of 12,500 acres of citrus in four locations. The groves have had the ability to produce 6.5 to 7.5 million boxes of citrus at peak production. Unfortunately, there have been several declines in production. This included the spread of Citrus Canker caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas axonopodis, which was spread throughout the state by hurricanes in 2004. As part of the mandatory Canker Eradication Program, all trees on 4,500 acres were destroyed. Then in October 2005, Citrus Greening Disease (also known as Huanglongbing or HLB) was found in the groves. Southern Gardens responded to this by initiating an aggressive management program by inspecting groves for infected trees four times per year, removing infected trees, spraying to control the vector of the disease (Asian Citrus Psyllid), and replanting with healthy trees. During this process, more than 750,000 trees were removed. Today, the disease is managed by maintaining tree health using fertility, nutrition and pest management. This ends up costing the grower three times more to produce one half to one third less fruit (future production is estimated to be reduced to 2.0 to 2.5 million boxes). As one of the speakers said, “we are learning to live with HLB”. To combat this devastating disease, tour participants learned that Southern Gardens Citrus is working to develop resistant varieties including the use of transgenic viral vector (Citrus Tristeza Virus) to promote resistance in healthy trees.

To get another perspective of vegetable production in a different region of the state, that afternoon we travelled to Duda Farm Fresh Foods. Duda Farm Fresh Foods, which has been operating for more than 90 years, is a family-owned and operated grower, packer, shipper, marketer, importer and exporter of fresh fruits, vegetables and fresh-cut vegetables. Here, we learned about muck vegetable production-particularly celery harvesting. As one of the world’s largest celery producers, it was breathtaking to observe both the large celery acreage and the harvesting and packing of celery in the field.

To end the day, we travelled to the University of Florida Everglades Research and Education Center to learn about an important non-chemical form of pest control—the barn-owl. Plant Pathologist, Dr. Richard Raid and his assistant Ann Hartman work with the UF Barn Owl Program, which utilizes barn owls for sustainable rodent control in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). By establishing owl nesting boxes in agricultural areas, owls that nest in the boxes consume a variety of pests including cotton rats and marsh rats that can cause up to $30 million in damage each year to sugar cane, rice and vegetable crops.

Thursday began with an overview of sugar cane production by US Sugar, which was founded in 1931 and produces approximately 10 percent of all sugar in the U.S. Here tour attendees learned about new technologies in sugar cane farming including precision agricultural tools that are being used for weed management and fertility. Lucky tour goers were able to ride in a large tractor with a self-propelled spray rig to get a first-hand experience of a spray application. During that time, tour participants also learned about how the crop is grown and the growers are implementing Best Management Practices in the sugar cane fields. This was followed by a tour stop at a sugar cane field being harvested and a sugar mill “drive-thru” tour.

In the afternoon, the important topic of pollinators was discussed at Cracker Jack Farms, Inc. in North Ft. Myers. David Mendes hosted the tour and answered many of the burning questions that tour goers had about queen production and honey bee health issues that have emerged in recent years including Varroa mite control. Tour participants were able to have an up close view of the hives was well as learning about the importance of maintaining honey bee nutrition, with supplemental protein feeds and by planting forage to attract and feed pollinators.

Although it was only a half-day tour on Friday, the day was not lacking in excitement or learning opportunities. In fact, most tour attendees were especially excited because a helicopter tour was provided to view an aerial mosquito control application on Beautiful Island (which, in fact, was not beautiful at all, but was riddled with millions of salt marsh mosquitoes). After high tides or rain, mosquitoes from these small island habitats can fly as much as 50 miles to seek humans and/or animals for fulfil their blood meal needed to produce eggs. Tour participants also learned about some of the other mosquito species in the area that can transmit mosquito-borne diseases including West Nile Virus. Lee County Mosquito District representatives spoke about and demonstrated the need for the registration of granular mosquito control products since they penetrate wooded canopies effectively. They also explained that the basis of the mosquito control operation consists of daily surveillance to check mosquito breeding habitats and respond to service requests from citizens. They also demonstrated drone scouting and an airboat application to control noxious aquatic plants that are choking Florida waterways.

This tour provided the ultimate agricultural experience. Many aspects of Florida agriculture were covered thoroughly and tour goers were able to have all of their questions answered. Although tour participants viewed more in one week than many individuals are able to see in a lifetime, Mike Aerts mentioned at the end of the tour “I wish we had more time to show you more…because there is a lot more to see.” So if you ever get invited to a future Florida Spring Regulatory Tour (hosted by the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association), get ready for a truly memorable experience!