UF research center in Hillsborough County picks food for your table, plants for your yard

South Hillsborough County is exploding with development: New housing sprouts daily, chain stores and restaurants compete for prime road frontage. A “super” WaWa, complete with coffee bar and made-to-order Panini sandwich counter, opened recently on U.S. Highway 301 in Sun City Center. 

But turn east off 301 onto County Road 672 and you soon find yourself driving through Florida’s agricultural heartland -- grazing land and strawberry fields stretch for miles. 

So it comes as a surprise when out of the scrubland rises a complex of modern brick buildings, barns, greenhouses and residential housing. 

Located north of Wimauma and south of Balm, on nearly 500 acres, is the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, one of 12 such agriculture research centers around the state. The Center under Director Jack Rechcigl is considered a leader in research for vegetable, floral and strawberry production and breeding, and is known worldwide for its support of growers and the agriculture industry. 

Hundreds of samples are sent in each year to the Center’s Diagnostic Clinic by growers and nurserymen looking to solve issues they find in their fields. In 2015 the Center added a new addition with 16 more offices as well as a third residence for graduate students and visiting researchers. 

In addition to the Center in Wimauma/Balm, there is a teaching facility in Plant City at the Hillsborough Community College Campus where students have the unique opportunity to obtain advanced degrees in agricultural education and geomatics.

Research lab to kitchen table

Whether you live in the United States, Europe or Japan, if you enjoyed strawberries on your cereal at breakfast or tomatoes on your salad at lunch, chances are you consumed food that is a result of the work being done at the Center. Designed to simulate a fully operational farm, nearly 200 employees, from Ph.D. researchers to laborers focus on the development of new crop and plant varieties as well as techniques to enhance and protect old favorites.

The famous “Tasti Lee” tomato and the “Sweet Sensation” strawberry came in to existence as outcomes of the work done at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center: Both became so popular they are celebrated with their own Florida festivals. The money generated by their patents continues to help fund the Center’s research, research that encompasses such varied disciplines as Agricultural Economics, Entomology (the study of insects), Plant Pathology (the study of diseases in plants caused by infectious organisms), and Horticultural Sciences (the breeding and technology associated with plant cultivation for human use).
Florida’s agriculture industry has recently taken a heavy hit due to citrus greening, an incurable disease that makes the fruit unsuitable for consumption and eventually destroys the tree. The disease has reduced citrus production statewide by 70 percent over the past 20 years.
Finding solutions for dieing groves is exactly the type of problem researchers at GCREC are working toward. Plant Physiologist Shinsuke Agehara believes that pomegranates will help fill the void. They can use the same orchard; pomegranate trees require the same spacing as citrus trees, and the tree’s irrigation and nutritional requirements are similar. Pomegranates are a valuable crop, highly sought after and with a high retail price point.
But it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. Harvested in late summer and early fall, Florida pomegranates need to survive the Sunshine State’s heat and humidity, which is not their natural growing environment. The Center is currently focused on developing Florida-friendly pomegranate varieties, while at the same time testing various chemicals and fungicides to ensure a healthy and profitable crop. Once the right preventative mixture is found, it will be submitted to the EPA for approval for commercial use in Florida. 
Another high-value crop that years ago established itself as important to Florida’s economy is strawberries. Although the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center has developed many commercially successful varieties of strawberries for the marketplace, research to improve growing habits and develop ever more effective pest and weed control, is ongoing.
Plant Pathologist Natalia Peres focuses on working with growers to maximize their crop and therefore their profits. 

“Strawberries are hard to grow,” Peres says. “They’re fragile and susceptible to pests and disease, but Florida has perfect weather for them. And Florida is the only state that can produce strawberries in the winter.”
Peres also works in the famous strawberry breeding program of Vance Whitaker, who strives to develop varieties that are disease resistant. Citing a human example, Peres says when a child is born we vaccinate them to be resistant to disease. When our strawberry varieties are born we know what they’re susceptible to and what they are resistant to. Every variety released by the Center has a patent.
It is not only Florida that benefits from the GCREC’s research and development, their strawberries are grown in over 40 countries, continually returning profits to the breeding program.

Breeding tomatoes, other vegetables

Impacting crops worldwide is also the purview of Gary Vallad, Associate Center Director and Plant Pathologist. He and his team support the vegetable industry by identifying diseases, finding the microbial agents that cause the disease, and then finding a way to manage them in an economical manner.
The Center has a successful tomato breeding program run by Sam Hutton, along with peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash and cucumbers. Despite successes in the laboratory and the field, Vallad points out there are still major challenges. Some 30,000 acres of tomatoes are planted in Florida every year, and every acre is planted, staked and harvested by hand; it is very labor intensive.

The Center is currently working on developing a tomato plant that will not require staking and will mature at the same time as companion crops thus reducing planting and harvesting costs.
While growing and developing fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants are a major focus of the Center, killing and controlling weeds receive their share of attention. 

“Weeds are a major issue in Florida,” says Nathan Boyd, Agricultural Weed Scientist. “They impact the quality of a crop and host other pests.”

Equally important with the growing of crops is the technology involved in protecting and harvesting them. The development of new systems is crucial to improved profit and productivity. One of the Center’s most successful projects, led by Natalia Peres, is the use of weather stations to monitor conditions and tell growers when it is time to spray. If the growing season is warm and dry as it has been this year, fewer applications are needed. In humid or rainy weather, more protection is needed. Now, rather than spraying indiscriminately on a “shotgun” approach, a grower can check their computer or receive a text when the next application is needed. This information can reduce the amount of chemicals sprayed on a field by as much as 50 percent: Big savings for the grower and less fungicides and herbicides for the consumer.
The project had so much promise that the federal government gave the Center a four-year grant to perfect the system. The results were so convincing that the grant was extended four more years. The weather monitoring system in now in seven states including California and is continuing to roll out across the country.

Growing ornamental plants, trees

Florida’s farmers and growers are not only focused on food; ornamental plants and trees are also an important part of the agricultural industry and the health of the planet.
Andrew Koeser, Environmental Horticulturalist whose specialty is urban landscapes, says that even those who don’t believe in climate change will acknowledge the importance of trees to the quality of our air. There are also many economic benefits that are often overlooked, like the improved value of real estate when trees are present. Koeser cites a study that shows children who grow up in tree-lined neighborhoods do better in school. People who live in neighborhoods and cities without trees have poorer health.
When planting or culling trees on a property, whether urban or suburban, Koeser recommends staying with native species such as live oak and sable palm. Trees imported for their decorative qualities often become invasive such as the Brazilian Pepper which is spreading through Central Florida.
Invasive species are also a concern to Zhanao Deng, Environmental Horticulturalist specializing in ornamental plant breeding. Deng and his team work on the development of new flower and ornamental plant varieties. Florida is the second-largest producer of ornamental plants in the country. Lantana, Gerbera Daisy, Impatiens and Petunias are major sellers, as is Caladium. Florida grows 95 percent of the Caladium blubs sold in the United States and in countries around the world.
The science, chemistry and research conducted at UF’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center are crucial to the growth and profitability of the agricultural industry in Florida and the United States. But there is another aspect of the industry that is equally important -- the business of agribusiness.
When asked about the future, Shengfei Guan, Assistant Professor of Agricultural Economics, speaks of issues with production, labor, the challenges of government regulations, and the U.S.’s number one competitive market, Mexico.
“Our number one challenge is trying to compete with imports from Mexico,” says Guan. Many of the problems arose after NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 1996 the American tomato industry filed dumping charges against Mexico, resulting in an agreement to set a floor on prices; this offered some protection. Every five years the agreement is renegotiated.

Strawberries, one of Florida’s most important crops, are also under pressure from Mexican competition. In 2003, Mexican strawberries exported to the States were 50 percent of the amount of strawberries Florida was producing. In 2016, Mexico was bringing into the country nearly double the amount of strawberries being grown in Florida, resulting in Florida growers taking losses due to reduced market share.

New technology, global competition shape future
Others of Florida’s important cash crops are under pressure: Bell peppers, cucumbers, squash all face stiff competition. Guan says an agri-industry expert recently called the situation a “blood bath” for Florida farmers. With Mexico’s cheap labor, the cost per acre to grow most crops is 40 percent less than in Florida. And with the Peso devalued, Mexico becomes even cheaper.
Hopes hang on the federal government in Washington, Guan says.

“We’re hoping the new administration will offer new trade policies ... will renegotiate NAFTA,'' Guan says. "And the government can also help by supporting new technology to reduce labor costs.” 

A robotic picker for strawberries is currently being developed and funded by a large commercial grower, with no help from the government. If successfully launched, that equipment could lower the cost of strawberries by $5,000 per acre. The government could also assist the industry by making the “guest worker” program more grower-friendly, cutting the paperwork and requirements to gain H2A temporary agricultural worker visas.
Seeking solutions to keep Florida growers in the forefront of the agriculture industry is the ongoing mission of the University of Florida Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. Through science, technology, innovation and the development of new plant varieties, the impact of the work done at GCREC resonates throughout the country and around the world. 

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Read more articles by Pamela Varkony.

Pamela Varkony’s non-fiction topics range from politics to economic development to women's empowerment. A feature writer and former columnist for Tribune Publishing, Pamela's work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and in PBS and NPR on-air commentaries. Her poetry has been published in the New York Times. Recognized by the Pennsylvania Women's Press Association with an "Excellence in Journalism" award, Pamela often uses her writing to advocate for women's rights and empowerment both at home and abroad. She has twice traveled to Afghanistan on fact-finding missions. Pamela was named the 2017 Pearl S. Buck International Woman of Influence for her humanitarian work. Born and raised in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Pamela often weaves the lessons learned on those backcountry roads throughout her stories.