Agri Leader

USF/UF researchers explore path to better strawberries

Can Florida strawberry growers gain clear, important market advantages by reducing the use of pesticides?

Researchers at the University of South Florida and University of Florida will address that question by investigating whether the reduced use of pesticides and fungicides can improve the post-harvest quality of Florida strawberries and deliver other key benefits such as lower production costs.

Funded by a $172,663 USDA specialty crop block grant administered by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the innovative two year-project is being led by Cecilia Nunes, an assistant professor in USF's department of cell biology, microbiology and molecular biology. She is working with Natalia Peres of UF's Gulf Coast Research Center, where initial research on the reduced use of pesticides by strawberry growers was already underway.

The fundamental purpose of the study is to determine the effect of reduced pesticide use on the quality of the fruit, Nunes said. "We already know that growers can decrease the use of pesticides and fungicides without increasing disease in the fruit," she said. "But we do not know what happens to the quality of the fruit."

Nunes and Peres will study such effects on the quality of fruit from its harvest, through the shipping process and at market. In turn, those findings will be used to determine whether improved fruit quality can be used successfully as a competitive marketing tactic against strawberries grown in other places, such as Mexico.

"There was some criticism of this project initially, because we have to be very careful not to

suggest that fruit from foreign producers is not safe because of the use of certain

chemicals," Nunes said. "The foreign fruit is safe. Our idea is to find ways to make it better. And also determine ways that Florida growers can develop certain advantages, such as lower costs or better protection of the environment, because they use less pesticides."

Nunes and Peres are working with a Florida grower to produce side by side strawberry crops - one grown with the customary levels of pesticides, the other reduced by 50 percent.

After harvest, those crops will be compared to one another and also to commercially available organic berries bought from Wish Farms in Plant City.

"We want to know what happens to the fruit after harvest," Nunes said. "What is its appearance? What is its texture? What are the effects of time and temperature as it is packaged and shipped? What is its shelf life?"

The research that will answer those questions will be done in two annualized cycles through two experimental crops in 2014 and 2015. Then results will be compared, studied and announced.

Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Dover, has strongly endorsed the research initiative.

"It's a great goal," said Campbell, who wrote a letter to USDA in support of funding for the project. "Any farmer wants to reduce input costs any way he can. He also wants to produce more wholesome fruit at the same time. So the work represented by this project is certainly an ideal to reach toward."

However, he said, by definition the effort faces some practical challenges.

"The tricky piece of the puzzle is consumer awareness," Campbell said. "Or consumer apathy, depending on which side of the coin you want to look at. How do you communicate what you've done to the consumer in a way that might motivate their purchasing behavior? That is really,

really hard to do."

In addition, Campbell said, it's important that consumers understand that Florida strawberry growers are already doing everything possible to grow the highest quality and safest fruit available anywhere in the world.

"And that includes understanding that we are not indiscriminately spraying [pesticides] everywhere," he said. "But some consumers will just never understand that. And there are others who want absolutely no pesticides at all used."

And there are still others, he said, who only want the fattest, reddest strawberries, without any concern for how many pesticides were used to get an attractive, appealing product.

In general, however, Campbell said, there is a powerful market trend toward more consumers caring about where their food comes from and how it is grown.

"And wise agriculturists should be addressing that in social media and whatever other marketing methodologies they use, to begin to teach people how and why fruit is grown the way it is," he said. "And why we already work to limit the use of chemicals. And why we can't in a lot of cases."

He also agreed that even if an ability to produce improved fruit is not a result of the project, reduced production costs and improved environmental responsibility would deliver clear market advantages.

"Those in and of themselves are noble goals," he said.