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Spraying Smarter Strengthens Strawberry Production

Thanks to a USDA NIFA grant, strawberry growers in Florida are benefiting from a smart system that helps them time spraying to prevent diseases – saving the farmers money while minimizing the environmental impacts. The system is being adapted for growers in other states.

Thanks to a USDA NIFA grant, strawberry growers in Florida are benefiting from a smart system that helps them time spraying to prevent diseases – saving the farmers money while minimizing the environmental impacts. The system is being adapted for growers in other states.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

With the U.S. being the world’s leading producer of strawberries, the success of these tart and sweet treats is essential to the economy of a state like Florida. In fact, with a $366 million-per-year industry, the state comes second only to California as the nation’s largest strawberry producer. Naturally, strawberry growers are looking for ways to sustain their harvests and profitability.

Enter Natalia Peres, University of Florida Gulf Coast Research and Education Center professor of plant pathology.  With funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Peres and her research team developed an online web tool, the Strawberry Advisory System (SAS), which helps farmers spend less money on fungicides yet achieve better results with what they do spray.

Peres and doctoral students performed thorough testing before releasing SAS. Traditionally, Florida strawberry farmers spray crops once each week from November to March to prevent attacks of botrytis and anthracnose, the two most deadly fruit rot diseases for strawberry. Peres’ monitor communicates with farmers through their computers and mobile technology to alert them of an adverse disease index; meaning that the combination of leaf wetness, air temperature, and other factors have combined to create a perfect environment for disease. Once alerted, farmers can spray their crops and then log the information onto a website where each spray is tracked, the indexes are logged, and spray advisories given.

“This system is a prime example of something we like to call the ‘The Internet of Agriculture Things.’ It is showing how Internet-enabled technologies can be used to achieve the kind of healthy, cost-effective, high-yield crops we will need to feed the burgeoning global population while ensuring competitiveness of the American farmer,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director.

With 96 percent of Florida strawberry producers reporting cases of botrytis, 40 percent with yearly cases of anthracnose, and 30 percent with anthracnose every 3-4 years, fungicides are a necessary – and hefty – bill. However, SAS may be just what Florida’s farmers are looking for.

“The impact it has in Florida is already clear in the profits—spraying less and getting the same effects helps the economic situation, as well as positively impacting environmental causes,” said Peres. “The reduction in spraying also means that producers are preserving the chemicals they still have. Resistance caused by over-spraying is lessened, so chemicals are available for use longer when producers really need them.”

Peres received a $2.9 million Specialty Crops Research Initiative award in 2010 and another in 2014 for $1.3 million. She plans to expand SAS into South Carolina in the spring of 2015 after proving it also works successfully in Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio.

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues that impact people’s daily lives and the nation’s future.

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