The drought is not the only problem Florida tomato and watermelon growers are facing this season. Gene McAvoy, regional vegetable Extension agent with the University of Florida, said whitefly pressure has proliferated and become a big problem for growers.
Florida’s relatively warm winter this past year has caused tremendous pest pressure (especially whiteflies) now in the spring. McAvoy says he has seen some whitefly-vectored viruses on tomatoes and watermelon in Southwest Florida. “They have been exploding and reaching, I would say, unprecedented levels,” he said.
Tomato growers are faced with the issue of irregular ripening due to the increased whitefly population. Irregular ripening is a physiological disorder caused by whiteflies when they inject toxins into the tomato crop while feeding. Infected tomatoes will never ripen properly. This creates a big problem for growers because these infected tomatoes will be rejected in the marketplace and unable to be sold.
McAvoy noted that several growers in Southwest Florida have lost hundreds of acres of production because of whitefly pressure. He also warned that these pests are making their way up the peninsula.
In addition, Florida vegetables are still facing the ongoing drought. Fortunately, most growers have strong irrigation systems, and Florida has not reached such an extreme drought level that well water is threatened, so water restrictions are not currently a prevalent issue. However, McAvoy says if the state continues this dry spell for multiple years, next year’s crop could be heavily impacted.
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