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In COVID-19 Era, UF/IFAS Research Adapts

Clint Thompson Florida, Fruit, Top Posts, Vegetables

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Pam Roberts checks pepper plants for bacterial leafspot at UF’s Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. (Photo by Eric Zamora UF/IFAS)

By: Kirsten Romaguera, 352-294-3313, kromaguera@ufl.edu

As Florida moved to “safer at home” measures, not all work could be put on pause.

When it came to University of Florida research, many UF/IFAS projects could not wait. There are living plants, animals and insects to feed and maintain; some projects have regular monitoring procedures for which postponement could have broader environmental consequences.

“We are very proud of our faculty, staff and students for continuing their essential research safely during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Robert Gilbert, dean for UF/IFAS Research and director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station. “We have approved many critical and time-sensitive research projects as this situation has evolved, and we continue to do so, with the number of approved projects well over 1,000 at this point. We expect other ongoing projects to ramp up in the near future.”

The UF/IFAS research portfolio includes thousands of projects totaling millions of dollars in funding.

“Our projects are continuing, but we have adapted to reflect COVID health and safety concerns to keep our research teams safe,” said Damian Adams, interim associate dean for UF/IFAS Research. “Some programs were able to transition very well to remote work and were largely uninterrupted or even accelerated.”

Below is just a sampling of the projects that have continued during the pandemic.

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On-farm hemp trials around Florida are slated to begin soon.
  • Out of the Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred, Florida, professor of nematology Larry Duncan leads a study for citrus grove nematode management. Florida citrus growers, whose success is already being challenged by widespread citrus greening, rely on UF/IFAS research to recommend best practices for a productive fruit yield. Disrupted continuity of Duncan’s project would have caused a two-year delay in recommendations as well as potential productivity losses in CREC’s citrus groves.
  • From the Fort Lauderdale REC in Davie, Florida, a team led by algae expert Dail Laughinghouse, an assistant professor, keeps tabs on the quality of several water bodies: Lake Okeechobee, Lake Tohopekaliga, St. Lucie Canal and St. Lucie Estuary. The project conducts monthly sampling to remain on the forefront of the fight against harmful algal blooms and their toxins, which present a constant threat to environmental and public health. During an active bloom, the consequences have proven to be far-reaching, with every Florida industry depending on our water resources in some direct or indirect way, from tourism to healthcare. Long-term data and continuous monitoring are necessary to support the understanding of triggers and dynamics of these toxic blooms.
  • At the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory (FMEL) in Vero Beach, molecular biologist Chelsea Smartt, an associate professor, has a living Culex mosquito population that can salivate Zika virus. As one of few such populations in the world, continuous maintenance is required, as the loss of these insects would mean this critically important research is unable to continue. The work done at FMEL has implications for populations around the world, as mosquito-borne diseases are easily spread and kill many people each year.
  • The university’s main campus in Gainesville, Florida has greenhouses that are home to the blueberry breeding program, the basis of the state’s successful blueberry industry, which was valued at $82 million in 2015 (USDA-NASS, 2016). Patricio Munoz, horticultural sciences assistant professor, and his team must continue maintenance of the living plants, without which irrecoverable losses could occur.
  • Work at the Range Cattle REC in Ona proves the ability for some projects to continue virtually. Maria Silveira, soil and water sciences professor, is leading a project that investigates phosphorous (P) inputs and outputs for cow-calf operations in the state of Florida. As part of this effort, an online survey has been administered to beef cattle producers statewide. The project, developed in collaboration with the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and funded by the Florida Cattle Enhancement Board, is expected to provide a better understanding of role that beef cattle industry plays in the overall P inputs and outputs throughout the state.
  • With the UF/IFAS hemp program beginning its second year, a delay could affect future plantings and research. The program, led by Zachary Brym, agronomy assistant professor at the Tropical REC in Homestead, requires continuous maintenance of the fields to remain in a cultivatable status, which are now in the process of being planted with hemp. In addition, on-farm trials around the state are slated to begin soon. This critical work will help the fledgling industry by providing growers with guidance for success.
  • Robert Fletcher, a wildlife ecology and conservation professor based in Gainesville, leads an ongoing project to monitor the federally endangered snail kite for several Florida agencies. The species has broader legal implications, factoring into water management decisions in central and south Florida.

“This crisis has highlighted the importance of Florida agriculture more than ever,” Gilbert said. “The pandemic has presented difficult conditions for our researchers to adapt to professionally and at home, but working as a team has made us well-positioned to ramp up research quickly and safely to serve our stakeholders around the state. We value our partnerships with funding agencies and grower groups to perform this impactful research.”

Gilbert adds that UF/IFAS is investing in new research that will kick-start new interdisciplinary studies, as well as research into emerging opportunities for Florida agriculture.