Variety Development – Gators Edition

March 2, 2021 in Crops

Variety Development – Gators Edition

More Sweet Corn than Field Corn

What do oranges, sugarcane, and watermelon have in common? No state produced more of any of them than Florida in 2019, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. What about bell peppers, cucumbers, grapefruit, peanuts, strawberries, and tomatoes? Florida produced more than all states but one for each commodity. Cabbage? Third in the nation. Snap beans? Fourth. Honey? Fifth. 

For a state perhaps most commonly known for its beaches and as a vacation destination, Florida has a substantial agricultural profile. It even ranked 13th in the nation for potato production in 2019. (If you happen to be really curious about potato production in Florida, most production is south of Jacksonville in a town called Hastings. Wikipedia even notes that Hastings is the “Potato Capital of Florida.”) Without livestock and products related to animal agriculture, the state ranked 11th in total agricultural receipts at $195 billion in 2019. 

Whereas some regions of the country are best known for the production of field crops like corn and soybeans, Florida is the opposite. Perhaps the best example of Florida’s role as a specialty crop powerhouse are the numbers 40 and 140. As in, the value of field corn ($40 million) and the value of sweet corn ($140 million). By comparison, for the U.S. as a whole field corn production ($49 billion) is 75 times greater than sweet corn production ($652 million) in terms of dollar value. 

The UF/IFAS plant breeders oversee and manage one of the most active and innovative plant breeding programs in the world. No other institution genetically improves such a large variety of crops which can be grown not just in Florida, but also around the world. Our breeders use next-generation science to improve more than 50 crops for food, feed, fiber, fuel, shelter, landscape beautification, eco-systems services, and a variety of other human activities.

Because of the extraordinary variety in Florida agriculture and the unique characteristics of its environment, the state’s agricultural industries lean on its land-grant university (LGU) to develop improved varieties of crops already in Florida and those that may be introduced on a commercial scale in the future. Founded in 1853, the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville is one of two LGUs in the state. Florida’s other LGU is in Tallahassee, but is not Florida State University. Florida A&M University–also in Tallahassee was founded in 1887 and is a historically black 1890 university. For the purposes of our post today, we will focus on UF.

Even as far back as 1892, UF was releasing new varieties developed by its researchers. Today, the plant breeding team at UF has varieties growing in more than 60 countries around the world. 

Courtesy of UF/IFAS

The list of agricultural commodities for which UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is much too long to focus too much on all of them. However, the UF/IFAS citrus breeding program deserves a mention here. Last July we wrote about how 2020 was designated as the International Year of Plant Health by the United Nations. Within that post we addressed the devastation that has been unleashed on Florida’s citrus industry by a bacterial disease commonly called citrus greening. Researchers have been working hard to develop resistant varieties of citrus to help mitigate the terrible effects of the disease, which kills the tree and for which there is no known cure. Although a solution is not yet at hand, it appears some tolerance of citrus greening is present in experimental rootstocks. For a disease-weary Florida citrus industry, we hope that the UF/IFAS research team continues to make progress against the terrible bacterial pest first discovered in 2005. 

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