The Cooperative Extension Service delivers research and education from land grant universities, including the University of Florida (UF) and Florida A&M University (FAMU). Fresh off the 100th anniversary celebration of the Extension service in 2014 – and as FAMU celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2015 – university Extension researchers are helping send the state’s farm and food businesses into the next century.
Extension specialists, such as Dr. Mercy Olmstead, are passionate about using research to help solve challenges facing Florida’s farms, including helping farmers identify and grow new products to take to market. Peaches are gaining ground in Florida thanks to Extension research that’s been put into action.
“My main role in Extension is to answer questions about peaches,” says Olmstead, assistant professor and stone fruit specialist in the UF Horticultural Sciences Department.
Olmstead conducts basic research, determining peach tree nutrient needs in Florida’s subtropical climate. She develops peach best management practices and interactive budgets for projecting peach profitability. She delivers much of the information to growers in person, including two major educational field days held for fruit growers.
A peach demonstration plot at the Plant Science Research & Education Unit in Citra shows growers how to thin peaches to grow larger fruit. Florida’s early peaches can be smaller in size.
“Consumers tell us Florida peaches have more aroma and flavor than other early peaches,” says Olmstead. But fruit wholesalers want early peaches to be similar in size to later-season peaches, she adds.
The Citra farm is one of the 19 Extension research centers and demonstration sites around the state. County Extension offices in all 67 counties also help disseminate research and information.
And peach production is up from 150 acres in 2009 to 1,500 acres in 2015, according to Olmstead’s latest survey. That acreage documentation contributed to a decision by the USDA Risk Management Agency to offer peach crop insurance in Florida in 2015, says Olmstead.
Since Dr. Jeff Brecht joined UF/IFAS 31 years ago, global demand for Florida’s fresh fruit has increased. Brecht, director of the UF/IFAS Research Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, says a new packaging system developed at UF is helping keep Florida fruit tasty upon arrival.
“For some fruits and vegetables, post-harvest temperature control is not enough,” says Brecht. “More than 50 percent of strawberries shipped from Florida are on pallets covered with plastic film, with a modified atmosphere inside,” explains Brecht.
Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) is not new to the produce industry. “Higher carbon dioxide acts to slow down the growth of microorganisms causing fruit decay,” explains Brecht, “and lowering oxygen reduces ethylene production, slowing down further ripening.”
But when fruit arrives at a grocery store distribution center, the MAP is removed.
“The single-MAP system only bought us about a day before the fruit would begin to spoil,” says Brecht. Compounding the problem: berries are usually displayed in open cases at temperatures that speed up spoilage.
So Brecht and the UF team designed a MAP clamshell container for berries.
“It increases the store shelf life to two or three days, more than enough for customers to get it home to their refrigerator,” says Brecht.
The UF team is also applying MAP to mangoes shipped internationally. Instead of picking green mangoes and hoping they ripen when they reach port, mangoes can be picked as they start to ripen, with ripening continuing in a MAP.
“The MAP also allows for a higher temperature for mangoes, which keeps them from chilling injury,” says Brecht. “That means Florida fruit arrives around the world fresher, creating more markets for growers.”
And Brecht says the center’s work is expanding the influence of land grant research and Extension. “We’ve been able to connect with packaging manufacturers, who were not always aware that Extension work goes beyond the farm.”
New Discoveries On The Horizon
University of Florida researchers are constantly working to keep the state’s agriculture industry competitive and productive. Here’s a look at some of the innovative research under way.
New crops: The Florida Specialty Crop Foundation is leading a research initiative that will determine whether pomegranates and blackberries can be commercially produced in Florida. Funded by a specialty crop block grant from the USDA that is administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the work is being done under the auspices of the University of Florida’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.
Improving shelf life: Researchers are examining how light can affect the quality of fruits and vegetables after harvest. About 50 percent of harvested produce goes to waste, so increasing shelf life, nutrient and flavor retention may help increase consumption of healthy food. The project will examine the effects of specific light wavelengths, or colors on reprogramming fruit metabolism and breakdown.
Tastier strawberries: University of Florida scientists believe they have pinpointed the exact compounds in strawberries that give the fruit its delightfully unique flavor – findings that will allow UF breeders to create more flavorful varieties even faster.