Florida-grown olive oil potential is limitless
By Vicky Boyd
With the United States producing only a fraction of the total olive oil consumed nationally each year, the potential for Florida-grown olive oil is nearly limitless.
“We consume about 80 million gallons of olive oil a year, and we (the United States) produce maybe 3 to 4 percent of that,” said Michael O’Hara Garcia, president of the non-profit Florida Olive Council in Gainesville. “If you can make olive oil, you can sell it. We could probably sell all of the olive oil we could produce in Florida.”
To capitalize on the market, growers and researchers will first have to overcome a number of hurdles, including finding suitable varieties, determining potential pests and building infrastructure.
But Garcia said he believes it is doable – olives have been grown in Florida since the 1700s. Finding olive varieties for an area south of Interstate 4 that require fewer chill hours, however, will be more challenging.
A recently planted 20-acre experimental grove in Hardee County with varieties from Tunisia, the Canary Islands and North Africa is designed to identify trees that will perform under warmer conditions. The olive council also donated sets of 50 trees comprising 10 different cultivars to a few University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences research centers for trials.
Bill Lambert, economic development director with the Hardee County Industrial Development Commission, said he hopes the trial in his county will show olives as a possible alternative crop for citrus producers hard-hit by citrus greening.
“We hope citrus recovers, but in order to sustain our community we have to find other crops to grow,” said Lambert, who is supporting the olive council’s efforts. “We’re looking for other crops to add to Florida’s repertoire.”
The industrial development commission also is exploring building an olive leaf extract plant, which could produce products even if trees don’t fruit. The extracts are used in soaps, fragrances and dietary supplements, among other items.
Florida olive oil pioneer
Don Mueller has already shown that growers can produce olives in North Florida. Since 1999, he has grown about 400 trees of various varieties near Marianna for both curing and oil. He recently sold his Green Gate Olive Grove for personal reasons.
Mueller first fell in love with olives when he and his family vacationed annually in Sorrento, Italy. The place where they stayed had a 50-acre olive grove around it.
“Over the years, the owner of the hotel had her sons and sons-in-law teach me how to grow them, how to harvest them, how to decide what time to harvest them,” Mueller said.
When he retired and moved to North Florida, he noticed the climate was almost identical to that of Sorrento. Mueller decided to replicate what he had seen in Italy.
Although large olive operations in California use mechanical harvesters with fingers that knock off the fruit, Mueller -- with his much smaller acreage -- used a tarp to catch the olives as he shook the trees. He also processed the fruit into oil with a small press.
In 2008, Mueller’s oil won an award at a Fort Lauderdale contest that attracted international entrants. It was a 50:50 blend of Mission and Arbequina, which Mueller said produces a delicate, buttery-flavored oil.
Extra virgin olive oil
For an olive oil industry to take off in the state, more than just hand presses will be needed, Garcia of the olive council said. Once olives are harvested, growers have only 24 to 48 hours to get them to a mill to be pressed before oil quality begins to deteriorate.
Already, small commercial mills have been built in Live Oak and Ocala and north of the state line in Lakeland, Ga. For them to succeed, Garcia said, each must process 150 to 200 acres’ worth of olives.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the International Olive Council have set strict chemical standards on what qualifies as extra virgin olive oil, known in the industry as EVOO. A University of California Davis study conducted in 2010 found that 69 percent of imported EVOO sampled failed to meet the IOC/USDA standards. Because of the high prices that EVOO can fetch, some purveyors dilute the olive oil with other less expensive oils.
That’s why the Florida Olive Council is working with UF/IFAS and the University of Georgia to develop testing protocols to ensure locally produced oils meet the strict standards. Those oils that pass muster will carry a logo saying they’ve been certified as EVOO.
Building a base
To build a base of knowledge from which a Florida olive industry can launch, UF/IFAS researchers are partnering with Florida growers to learn what they can about how olives will perform in Florida. Jennifer Gillett-Kaufman, an associate Extension scientist in Gainesville, is looking at possible insect pests.
“You know how Florida is,” she said. “If we don’t have a bug for a fruit or vegetable, we’ll get a pest for that fruit or vegetable.”
Gillett-Kaufman has already screened resident fruit fly species, and they don’t appear to be pests of olives. Fortunately, she said, Florida has been successful keeping out the olive fruit fly, which has plagued California olive producers.
Black scale, a pest of citrus, also is a potential pest of olives especially if new olive blocks are planted adjacent to old citrus groves, Gillett-Kaufman said.
Mack Thetford, an associate professor of landscape ornamentals and plant propagation at the UF/IFAS West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay, is looking at olive cultural practices.
All of this is in preparation for what Garcia said he hopes grows into a profitable industry.
“If it does work, you have to have a plan in place with consideration for milling, bottling, processing and marketing so the growth can be exponential,” he said. “If you don’t have that base, you cannot leverage your success moving forward.”
FFVA Cracker Breakfast to host inspirational writer and speaker Andy Andrews
By Mick Lochridge
Best-selling author and popular inspirational speaker Andy Andrews will deliver his take on tackling personal challenges during the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s upcoming convention.
The traditional Cracker Breakfast on Sept. 26 will host the Alabama native, who turned a tragic struggle as a teenager into a successful career as a professional communicator with a Southern drawl. Andrews spins stories filled with folksy wit and down-to-earth insights.
Andrews, 58, has written more than 20 books, including three New York Times bestsellers: “The Traveler’s Gift,” “The Noticer,” and “How Do You Kill 11 Million People?” Speaking requests have come from four U.S. presidents, military officials and business leaders.
Published in 2002,”The Traveler’s Gift” remained on the Times’ bestseller list for 17 weeks and has been translated into more than 40 languages. Subtitled “Seven Decisions that Determine Personal Success,” the book grew from Andrews’ own search to set his life back on course.
When he was 19, his mother died from cancer and his father was killed in an automobile accident. He drifted to the Alabama Gulf Coast, homeless and sleeping at times beneath a fishing pier. During that period he visited the public library, where he read more than 200 biographies of great men and women to learn what made them successful. What he discovered became the foundation of his career as a writer and speaker.
Today Andrews lives in Orange Beach, Ala., not far from that pier. He and wife Polly have two teenage sons. FFVA asked him to answer a few questions in advance of his convention appearance.
FFVA: Why do you think your messages of personal success and inspirational living resonate with men and women today?
Andrews: Everyone wants and needs hope to navigate the life they have chosen, but hope is a vapor — a myth — unless we attach principles to our choices. It’s a distinction I always make when I write and speak: Hope without direction is meaningless.
FFVA: Thinking about Florida’s farmers, what messages do you hope they take away from your talk?
Andrews: I want Florida’s farmers to understand fully the difference they make in our lives. I want them to feel appreciated, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to help in any way I can.
FFVA: How do your views on leadership, personal choices and consequences apply to farmers?
Andrews: Farmers are our nation’s ultimate entrepreneurs. Any entrepreneurial effort lives or dies on leadership and personal choices.
FFVA: Growing up in Alabama, what did you see and learn from farmers that helped shape your outlook on life?
Andrews: I was aware from an early age that America’s farmers fed the world. I have always been proud to be from a state that places such an importance on agriculture. George Washington Carver is one of my biggest heroes.
FFVA: What gets you down? What do you do about it?
Andrews: Being away from my family too much will do it. I have to take charge of my schedule. Home is certainly where MY heart is.
FFVA: What role does your faith play in what you do for a living?
Andrews: I feel certain God put me on Earth to do what I do. My faith is the part of me that leads all others.
FFVA: How do blend your messages and insights into strengthening your marriage and raising your kids?
Andrews: My wife and I have been married 28 years. Austin is 17, Adam is 15, and Polly is now officially the shortest one in the family! All my work comes tried and true directly from my family.
FFVA: Final question: What is your favorite vegetable?
FFVA’S 74th Annual Convention will be held Sept. 25-27 at The Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island. To see more about the convention and to register, go to ffva.com/convention. To download FFVA’s mobile app, search “FFVA” in the Apple Store or Google Play.
To learn more about Andrews, visit andyandrews.com, or watch a short video here.
FFVA convention to focus on trade, labor, and consumer perception issues
Trade issues are top of mind these days for specialty crop producers. Efforts have been underway since early this year to remedy damage to the state’s fresh fruit and vegetable industry from Mexican product being dumped into the U.S. during Florida’s harvest season. That’s a topic that FFVA will focus on in our upcoming 74thannual convention Sept. 25-27 in Amelia Island.
Carolyn Gleason of the Washington office of law firm McDermott Will and Emery and Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, who’s with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, will explain during one of the three Issues Forums what’s at stake and what FFVA and other groups are doing to ensure the industry can stay competitive.
Another forum, titled “They just don’t understand: Consumer angst about food and what you can do about it,” will focus on consumer trust. As consumers become more interested in how their food is grown, processed and brought to market, the food system must ensure it builds trust. J.J. Jones of the Center for Food Integrity will talk about how to engage and connect with consumers, telling your story so it will resonate.
Access to a stable, legal workforce remains a top concern for producers, so we’ll focus on that at the convention as well. With border walls and travel bans dominating the national headlines, where does that leave agriculture? Craig Regglebruge, National Council of Agriculture Employers, will discuss how our industry is strategizing to make sure the administration understands our unique workforce needs.
The convention will also feature two outstanding keynote speakers. State Rep. Jake Raburn will offer his take on the state of the industry during the opening luncheon on Sept. 25. During the annual traditional Cracker Breakfast on Sept. 26, we’ll hear from New York Times best-selling author Andy Andrews. Andrews, who has an interesting life story, wrote The Traveler’s Gift: Seven Decisions that Determine Personal Success. The book stayed on the Times’ bestseller list for 17 weeks. The newspaper hailed Andrews as a “modern-day Will Rogers who has quietly become one of the most influential people in America.”
In between sessions, there will be ample opportunity for networking with colleagues and connecting with our many sponsors. The Florida Specialty Crop Foundation will again offer up a silent auction with loads of great items such as travel packages, fashion and jewelry, artwork, wine selections and more. Proceeds will benefit several of the Foundation’s priorities, including FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. The final dinner with music and dancing will also feature a spirited live auction.
To wrap up the convention, golfers can hit the fairways at the Omni Amelia Island Ocean Links Golf Course. Anglers will be treated to a great fishing excursion in the shallow back country saltwater estuaries, flats and inlets west of Amelia Island.
To see more about the convention and to register, go to ffva.com/convention . You also can download our mobile app by searching “FFVA” in the Apple Store or Google Play.
Research key to pomegranate success
By Vicky Boyd
Florida’s fledgling pomegranate industry will continue to sprout, growers and researchers say, although work remains to be done in managing the diseases that plague pomegranate trees.
After 10 years of conducting trials into suitable varieties and related cultural practices, Bill Castle remains optimistic, and research at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred is tackling some of the challenges. Castle is a horticulture professor emeritus at the center.
At the outset of his research, Castle said, “I realized that diseases — not insect pests but diseases — were going to be a problem, and we can’t develop a commercial industry until we understand what the disease problems are and how to manage those. I think that is still true today.”
Cindy Weinstein, president of the Florida Pomegranate Association and owner of Green Sea Farms Pomegranate Nursery in Zolfo Springs, said she also remains hopeful.
“Yes, we do have hurdles to jump over. But yes, it’s doable, and we’re getting fruit. Our biggest handicap is getting (fungicide) labels,” she said.
Although Weinstein said she expects that the pomegranate industry will serve local and regional fresh fruit markets initially, she hopes it eventually grows large enough for international markets and related processing, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
Pomegranates are not new to the state, with a small industry dating back to the late 1800s. With the challenges facing the Florida citrus industry and changing consumer tastes and nutritional demands, Weinstein said, pomegranates have seen a resurgence of interest from growers.
Know thine enemy
About four years ago, Castle enlisted the help of Gary Vallad, an associate professor of plant pathology at the UF Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, to identify pathogens and develop ways to manage them.
“Bill came to us because he was having issues with several diseases that were severely limiting his ability to assess their varieties,” Vallad said. “There are a lot of varieties that would do well in Florida if it weren’t for the diseases.”
With the aid of a specialty crop block grant, Vallad began surveying pomegranate plantings to identify diseases and determine which ones were economically important. He found Colletotrichum was causing the most economic damage, followed by Botryosphaeriaceae – nicknamed Bot — and a few others.
“The most important pathogen that’s out there by far is Colletotrichum,” Vallad said, referring to the organism also known as anthracnose. Not only does it cause blossom blight, fruit rot, leaf spots, shoot blight, twig cankers and defoliation, but in severe cases it can cause branch dieback.
Based on that newfound knowledge, Vallad and his colleagues began conducting trials on cooperating growers’ infected trees. Only a few conventional products are registered for use on pomegranates, and they’re mostly for post-harvest diseases. Instead, the researchers focused on fungicides already registered for use on other fruit crops.
A handful of products proved effective, and Vallad said they have worked with the IR-4 Project, which helps develop data to support new Environmental Protection Agency tolerances and labeled uses for minor-use crops. The trials also showed that applying a fungicide at bloom is the most important, Vallad said. Repeating applications at other times of the year didn’t significantly improve disease control.
Building on Castle’s work, Vallad also found that removing dead leaves, diseased branches and rotten fruit on which spores can overwinter are critical to an integrated disease management program.
Growers have taken note, Weinstein said.
“Our trees were infected with fungus, but because of research at GREC we now know what type of fungus we have and been able to clean up our trees for marketable pomegranates,” she said.
In addition, Vallad and his group are trying to determine if there are other hosts for the disease. Because Colletotrichum also affects citrus and blueberries, does having a pomegranate orchard near those crops increase the potential for or severity of infection?
“This becomes really important, because we have a lot of folks who are blueberry growers or citrus growers,” he said.
Breeding for success
As part of the block grant, Zhanao Deng, UF professor of ornamental plant breeding and genetics based at GREC, began a breeding program to develop varieties that could perform well in Florida’s climate and disease pressures. At the same time, the trees had to yield tasty fruit consumers will want.
Deng started with about a dozen different cultivars, including Wonderful, the most widely grown variety in California. He screened the seedlings, selecting for desirable traits. The young trees eventually were planted in a 3.5-acre orchard at Balm and will act as a material source for future breeding.
Another part of the research, led by GREC agricultural economist Zhenfei Guan, involves examining the economics of growing pomegranates.
Shinsuke Agehara, an assistant professor of horticultural sciences at GREC, received a separate specialty crop block grant to study and improve pomegranate tree nutrition.
“It seems pomegranates are really heavy feeders, and people weren’t feeding them nearly enough,” Weinstein said.
For more information, visit UF’s pomegranate website at http://www.crec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/pomegranates/.
For updates on meetings and field days, follow the Florida Pomegranate Association on LinkedIn.com/floridapomegranateassociation/ or Twitter.com/flpomegranate/
ELDP takes on Tallahassee
Joe Negron’s controversial bill to buy 60,000 acres of sugar cane farmland south of Lake Okeechobee for water storage was the center of discussion when Class 6 of FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program and FFVA board leadership walked the halls of the Capitol in Tallahassee halfway through the session. The fate of the land-buy bill may be settled when this column prints, but while the FFVA group was in the capital, most of our conversations eventually ended up turning to SB 10.
The Tallahassee trip is a highlight of the Emerging Leader program. It gives the young agriculture professionals the opportunity to learn about the legislative process, meet with lawmakers and get a taste of political debate and deal-making. Many in the group had not been to the capital before.
The group met with legislators and other key leaders, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and interim DEP Secretary Ryan Matthews to discuss priority issues for agriculture. They also heard presentations about the upcoming UF/IFAS budget, Farmers Feeding Florida, the Farm to School initiative, and Fresh From Florida’s new marketing program.
Class 6 also toured the medical cannabis operation of Surterra in Tallahassee. At the plant, the cannabis is propagated, grown and harvested, and the oil is extracted. The oil is shipped to another location to be formulated by dose and delivery method. Surterra, which has plans for a major expansion at the Tallahassee location, also operates a retail storefront dispensary in Tampa.
Visiting with key lawmakers Sen. David Simmons and Sen. Wilton Simpson to discuss Negron’s bill were FFVA President Mike Stuart, Government Relations Director Butch Calhoun, and board Chairman Paul Orsenigo and Vice Chairman Paul Allen. They characterized their discussions with the legislators as “positive.”
The group visited both the House and Senate chambers. Class 6 members participated in a mock legislative session in the Senate after hearing from Sen. Denise Grimsley, who has announced her candidacy for agriculture commissioner in 2018.
The group also met with Reps. Jim Boyd, Matt Caldwell, Jake Rayburn, Tom Goodson, Ben Albritton and Rick Roth.
Produce industry trends – 2017 and beyond
By Doug Ohlemeier
Consumers – particularly millennials – are requesting more convenient and healthier foods, which is changing how produce is sold in stores and offered in restaurants.
Millennials – those born after 1980 and the first generation to come of age in the new millennium – are influencing produce purchases and transforming the way produce is merchandised, said Brian Darr, managing director of Datassential, a Chicago food industry research and consulting firm.
“Research has shown millennials are shopping the store perimeter more as they are interested in and comfortable with preparing more meals at home,” he said. “They are interested in trying new recipes, love variety and are interested in a wider variety of flavors and flavor influences — especially a wider variety of global flavor influences.”
That interest has prompted retailers to expand their produce sections with a wider variety of produce and include more exotic and value-added products, including chopped, shredded, peeled and cubed vegetables, salad kits, and more. “We also know that millennials are fine with a meal including some prepared items and some items they prepare themselves,” Darr said.
In some stores, the produce area is flowing into the deli/prepared foods and cheese sections to facilitate the increased “mix-and-match” shopping. Millennials may place into their shopping carts pulled pork from the deli section and a variety of vegetables to chop or shred, and tortillas to make pulled pork tacos or lettuce wraps with pulled pork, Darr said.
Smart produce marketers should try to serve millennials’ needs by offering convenience products, said Matt Lally, analytics and insights manager for Nielsen Fresh. “They’re not sitting down for as many formal meals,” he said. “They’re having smaller snacks throughout the course of the day. As their demands involve something more convenient and portable, products that are able to adapt to fit into that need are also experiencing a lot of growth.”
Compared to longtime produce department staples like bananas, grapes and potatoes, which are experiencing soft sales from lagging convenience offerings or product innovation, fresh-cut and sliced fruits and vegetables have seen high growth, Lally said. Nielsen Fresh and the United Fresh Produce Association’s quarterly FreshFacts on Retail reports show berries and packaged salads dominating fruit and vegetable category sales.
Grapefruit, watermelons, radishes, heirloom tomatoes and kumquats are experiencing high demand. Growth in sales of grapefruit and watermelons is primarily due to their use in beverages. Watermelon is used with feta cheese on salads, paired with tomatoes in burrata (an Italian cheese) dishes, in gazpacho presentations and as a dessert flavor for lighter sorbets and Italian ices, Darr said.
Radishes add color and crunch to many trending items, including avocado toasts and salads, raw fish dishes and upscale taco offerings. Restaurants are featuring heirloom tomatoes in salads and bruschetta, Darr said. Heirloom tomatoes are also featured with fish and other light proteins as a side for a center-of-plate offerings, he said.
Bowls, which allow diners to customize their meals, are gaining in popularity and are helping drive vegetable consumption in restaurants.
“While bowls have been added to retail product lineups by a number of fresh produce marketers, another big trend we’ve seen cross over from foodservice to retail is adding value to veggies by fundamentally changing their texture and shape – providing new ways to cook and new textures to enjoy,” said Cathy Burns, president of the Produce Marketing Association.
Spiralized zucchini, cubed butternut squashes and shaved brussels sprouts provide easier and new cooking experiences and huge retail demand. The spiralized veggies explosion is also meeting consumer demand for gluten-free noodle substitutes, Burns said.
Home delivery and online purchasing also is expected to increase in 2017. Meal delivery services including Blue Apron and Hello Fresh “make everyone a chef” and market foods with portion control and restricted servings. The trend helps the produce industry because it exposes consumers to items they may not have tried.
Keeping fast track on the right track
Stakeholders in the fresh citrus industry will have a chance to offer their thoughts on the program that allows them to test new fruit varieties and market them on a fast track. The program, aptly called FAST TRACK, will hold an open forum Jan. 5 at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred to examine the program’s progress and determine how it’s working for participants.
FAST TRACK took form several years ago thanks to the efforts of UF/IFAS, Florida Foundation Seed Producers and the New Varieties Development & Management Corp., of which Peter Chaires serves as director.
“When we looked at the sheer volume of new variety material – what we call new selections – that was in traditional breeding programs, we saw that there were probably in excess of 20,000 unique plants being tested,” Chaires said. “There was a growing need within the industry to be able to trial, on a private level, new experimental selections much sooner than they might otherwise become available. We needed a model to basically empower the growers to do that – so FAST TRACK was developed.”
Traditional Florida breeding programs call for entities such as IFAS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study experimental plants for 15 to 20 years in replicated field trials, using all types of soil and other growing conditions. The scientists would then collect data so that whenever a variety was released, growers would have an extensive bank of data on which to base their decisions. “That is the perfect way to do it,” Chaires said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have that kind of time. Nor do we now.”
USDA and IFAS still collect data using traditional methods, but Chaires says that growers want to have their own personal experience. “It happens naturally. If you go by a coffee shop or breakfast restaurant in a growing area, you always see growers gathered around the table in the morning exchanging opinions and learning from each other. So this puts it in their hands where they can try the new varieties and share their opinions with their neighbors,” he said.
In FAST TRACK, growers decide what works for them, and then they can make recommendations as to what should become commercially available.
“Right now, growers get two advantages to participating. They get a lower royalty rate forever in return for their assistance with the program, and they get a five-year production head start,” Chaires said.
FAST TRACK is for UF/IFAS fresh selections only, but Chaires says there are other means of rapidly advancing USDA selections. “Also, Florida Foundation Seed Producers has a program for making IFAS oranges for processing and IFAS rootstocks available much earlier,” he said.
Growers who are interested in participating in FAST TRACK register and pay a nominal fee. They are then granted early access to the material they would have had to wait decades for under traditional circumstances.
The program consists of three tiers.
“Tier 1 is the trial stage where you’re planting a minimum of five trees and a maximum of 30. The fruit’s not for sale. It’s just to gain experience with it and try to determine whether it’s of any value,” said Chaires.
“Tier 2 is if anything goes commercial, meaning that people can grow and sell the fruit. The only people eligible to go to Tier 2 are the people who were in Tier 1. Tier 2 would go for five years and then after the expiration of the five years, it goes to Tier 3, which is when there is open, commercial availability to anyone else who would care to participate – at a higher royalty rate,” he continued.
However, some growers requested an even faster process. “So we put something in called the Early Option, which means ANY grower in the program could go to Tier 2 any time they want,” Chaires said. “They don’t have to move as a group. Some people like that, and some people don’t.”
With citrus greening disease threatening the industry, Chaires says it’s more important than ever to streamline FAST TRACK.
“That’s what we want to accomplish with the open forum. We want more people to be exposed to the program, and we want some assurance that it’s structured in a way that is a benefit to the industry and to the university. We know that not everyone will agree on everything, so all we can do is gather input, compile that and then those three entities that developed it will weigh the input and decide if it’s OK the way it is or whether there’s a need to tweak it.”
Chaires says that the program has a critical need for nursery input. “We need growers, packers AND nursery people. The nurseries are a vital part of the process, and we really work hard to include them because they are front and center. This is a complicated program for them. Nurseries are used to making 5,000 of one thing, such as 5,000 navels on a single root stock. This program means they have to make a little bit of this, a little bit of that … and try to have them all ready at the same time. It’s very complicated, so we especially need them to come to the table,” he said.
Growers, packers and nursery owners are encouraged to RSVP for the forum to Lucy Nieves via email (email@example.com) or via fax at 321-214-0223.
Contact Peter Chaires via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or call 321-214-5214 with any questions about the program or the forum.
Biopesticides – Part of the tool chest
If you told someone who doesn’t work in agriculture that a mustard seed could be classified as a pesticide, they’d probably give you a funny look. Or how about balsam fir oil?
These are examples of biopesticides. And according to some growers, that label is a problem.
Two Florida growers, a researcher from a chemical company and an academic researcher served on a panel at the 2016 Florida Ag Expo held earlier this month at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. They were charged with talking about “maximizing use and effectiveness of biopesticides.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, biopesticides are certain types of pesticides derived from such natural materials as animals, plants, bacteria and certain minerals. For example, canola oil and baking soda are considered biopesticides. As of April, there were 299 registered biopesticide active ingredients and 1,401 active biopesticide product registrations.
Biopesticides have some advantages over conventional pesticides. They are usually inherently less toxic. They generally affect only the target pest and closely related organisms. They’re often effective in very small quantities and, as a part of an integrated pest management system (using insect or other predators, for example), can be effective at decreasing conventional pesticide usage while encouraging high crop yields.
But there are some downsides to biopesticides. The growers on the panel and some in the audience pointed out a few.
“It’s all about frequency,” said Chuck Obern, owner of C&B Farms, which grows vegetables and other crops in South Florida. “The cost must support the frequency that results in efficacy.” He described an example where he had to apply a biopesticide much more frequently than a conventional product in order to get similar results.
Jamie Williams of Lipman, a large tomato grower, said biopesticides are useful as part of a more extensive plan. “We don’t pass up a tool. They’re part of a tool chest,” he said.
“There is a place for biopesticides. They do work, but you have to figure out if you can afford to use them,” Obern said. “For organic crops, that’s all we can use.”
Gary Vallad, a University of Florida researcher on the panel, is on the case. “We’ve been conducting research trials the same as we would with any conventional product,” he said. “There are a lot of factors that affect evaluation. And it’s helpful to be able to work with growers in large plots. More research is needed to address variables in the field.”
Is the cost and the effort worth the trouble? One answer came from a grower in the audience. Carl Grooms, owner of strawberry operation Fancy Farms, isn’t so sure of that. “Pesticide is a bad word. Even if it’s got ‘bio’ in front of it. People only hear ‘pesticide.’ We need a different term,” he said. “I wonder if we’ll still be using the word in 30 years.”