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Protected Structures for Production of High Value Vegetable Crops for Florida Producers

By Dr. Daniel J. Cantliffe

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There are about 250,000 acres of vegetables produced in Florida valued at $1.8 billion. The major crops of tomato, watermelon, pepper, cucumber, and strawberry accounted for 61% of the total statewide vegetable crop value. Vegetable culture in Florida is a very technological business involving several high-cost inputs including polyethylene mulch, drip irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides. Currently, almost one-third of Florida vegetables, including all tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, eggplants, and most melons, are produced on polyethylene-mulch. Nearly 50% of the polyethylene-mulched crops are grown with drip irrigation.

Although Florida vegetable culture involves intensive production practices, there are major challenges in front of the vegetable industry. These challenges are 1) increased regulation of water, fertilizer, and pesticide inputs, 2) loss of a major soil fumigant, methyl bromide, 3) increased urbanization and loss of some of the more desirable (warmer) production land in southern Florida, and 4) continued challenges from weather, including freezes, winds and rain. Add to these challenges, the increasing problems associated with regional and global market competition. The added protection by plasticulture could lead to production of higher quality crops that will make Florida growers more competitive against imports from other vegetable production areas in the world. It is evident that for the vegetable industry in Florida to prosper and grow, there is a need to develop new cultural technologies.

Plasticulture systems, including high tunnels and greenhouses, could provide a means to deal with the challenges listed above. Currently, there is a growing greenhouse (hydroponic) vegetable industry in Florida, but these special greenhouses represent a substantial investment if heating and cooling systems are used. An alternative might be the use of greenhouse or tunnel structures with passive venting and heating. Greenhouse vegetable culture can provide protection from the weather, a major production challenge faced by vegetable growers. The serious potential loss of crops due to freezes and rain or wind is a major challenge and concern for all vegetable growers in climates and growing seasons such as Florida. These could more easily be controlled in greenhouse culture.

Greenhouse structures can protect the crop from wind and rain, but also can protect form insects when fitted with insect exclusion screens. Therefore, plasticulture systems could reduce the use of pesticides. Our crops have been ‘pesticide free’ for approximately 10 years, and depend on biological control of insects, mites, and diseases. We use Banker Plants to sustain our biological insect control. These pesticide free systems fit well with using bumble bees for pollinators.

Plasticulture systems could include the use of soilless culture for crop production. One example would be bag or container production using an inert media such as pine bark, perlite, or coconut fiber. Soilless culture would address the current challenges of urbanization because with soilless culture in greenhouses, winter vegetable production would not depend on warm, sandy soils of southern, coastal Florida. In addition, the loss of methyl bromide would be less troublesome if a portion of the vegetables could be grown in soilless culture, either under a protective structure or in open-field soilless culture. In our greenhouses at Citra we recycle all nutrients and water creating a highly sustainable system.

In summary, plasticulture with soilless cultural systems could address several of the serious challenges facing the vegetable industry in Florida and could provide a new industry to Florida producers. Some of the plasticulture technologies currently exist, but are still being evaluated and refined for Florida use. We have developed detailed information available on our website at www.hos.ufl.edu/protectedag for production of greenhouse tomatoes, peppers, baby squash, Datil peppers, cucumbers, melons, and strawberries. We have introduced new types of cucumber (Beit Alpha) and melons (‘Galia’ and ‘Charentais’) for growing and marketing from Florida. Already, this protected agriculture technology is in use in several places in the world, including Israel, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, Holland, several Far East countries (China, Korea, Japan), Canada, and Mexico. These countries face some of the same challenges as does the Florida vegetable industry. The Protected Agriculture Project at the University of Florida Horticultural Sciences Department provides much needed information for hands-on training and demonstrations so that Florida producers could examine, work, and train in this exciting new agricultural business endeavor.