Agri Leader

New research project explores pomegranate and blackberry production

Florida Specialty Crop Foundation is leading a new research initiative that will determine whether pomegranates and blackberries can be commercially produced in Florida.

Funded by a $182,847 specialty crop block grant from USDA that is administered by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the work is being done under the auspices of University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.

"This research project is a great example of multiple collaborators working together toward a common goal," said FSCF executive director Sonia Tighe. "It is a very broad project in that it will not only look at breeding the varieties of pomegranates and blackberries that could succeed in Florida, but it will also examine the disease pressures that are hampering the growth of the industry. And it is going to focus on insects, as well as looking at an economic model in terms of profitability scenarios and also do some consumer tasting panels so that we know how to better meet consumer demand. So it is a multi-faceted project."

The development of viable new alternative crops is very important to Florida's agricultural industry, Tighe said, "in terms of bringing some balance to the risks growers face when they have crops such as citrus."

And that balance is more important than ever now that citrus greening has had a devastating effect on overall Florida production and many individual producers, some of whom have already switched to new crops or who are currently exploring that option.

The potential for pomegranate production has been of growing interest to both large commercial producers and small growers since Dr. William Castle began his exploratory research on the crop in 2010.

The new FSCF research project has been strong supported by the Florida Pomegranate Association, said president Cindy Weinstein, owner of Hardee County-based Green Sea Farms, which now grows more than 100 varieties of pomegranate starter trees on four acres and ships them all over the world, including to emerging producers in Florida.

Pomegranates, Weinstein said, afforded Green Sea Farms an opportunity to pursue a promising new specialty crop that allowed it to avoid competition with large existing growers in major existing crops such as citrus.

However, Tighe said, because of the potential identified so far by the research done at UF, both small growers and large operators are now very interested in pomegranates as a new specialty crop.

As a result, a new phase of comprehensive research was critical to continuing forward momentum, Tighe said. "Dr. William Castle has been doing pomegranate research for several years now," she said. "And things have reached the point where they need some more serious research to be done to help them look at some disease and insect issues. But they also need to focus now on identifying the right variety or varieties of pomegranate that will thrive in the Florida climate."

Meanwhile, Tighe said, UF's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center is also exploring the potential for commercial production of blackberries.

Under the new USDA grant, Zhanao Deng, associate professor at GCREC, is leading a two-year project that will further extend the early work done by Bielinski Santos.

"Producing blackberries in Florida faces several challenges," Deng said. "One is that we do not yet have good varieties that can be grown in central and South Florida. And so far, that has been a major challenge."

A key issue is climate. It is ironic, given the unusually cold winter so far this year, that Florida is typically too warm to successfully grow winter season blackberries, which require 500-900 hours of temperatures consistently below 45 degrees in order to achieve proper early growth.

To overcome that obstacle, Deng's UF team is now testing the development of new blackberry cultivars that can thrive in Florida's warmer winter environment.

In order to foster commercial production, blackberries must be successfully grown in central and southern Florida. "And so far, that has been a major challenge," Deng said, adding that new cultivars are being tested this winter with several growers in Hillsborough County.

Despite any challenges, such work is essential to the ongoing growth and expansion of Florida's agricultural economy, Tighe said.

"One of the advantages we have in Florida with these kinds of specialty crops is that we have a market window that other states do not," said Tighe, adding that global demand for food is growing as more people are lifted from poverty.

"Because of that, we are extremely focused on partnering with researchers to develop any new product that could be a benefit to our growers," she said. "And Florida growers are very interested in testing new kinds of products and looking at new markets."