When humans develop signs and symptoms of sickness or infection, they turn to medical health professionals. When fruit crops, vegetables, and ornamental plants show signs and symptoms of illness or disease, growers and horticulture businesses turn to plant pathologists.
In south Florida, growers and nurseries of tropical plants, vegetables and crops turn to such experts at the Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) of University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). At the heart of the center that is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a gala fund raising event at the Coral Gables Country Club on October 26 is the Plant Diagnostic Clinic, established to preserve the health of a unique tropical plant industry.
Romina Gazis, assistant professor of plant pathology, leads the Plant Diagnostic Clinic with a handful of scientists and technicians who serve a diverse array of growers and commercial businesses within the green industry, with a focus on commercial growers that cultivate ornamental, tropical fruits, and landscape crops. TREC’s Plant Diagnostic Clinic has the unique designation of being the only tropical diagnostic clinic in the continental United States. The others are in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
This makes TREC’s Plant Diagnostic Clinic a vital component to the success of Florida’s tropical agriculture. Gazis explains that environmental conditions in Florida are ideal for the development of a large scale and diverse horticulture industry all year long. Studies indicate that Florida ranks second in the production of ornamental plants (after California) and leads the country in the production of tropical fruits and ornamental foliage such as palms, ferns, orchids and more. While Florida’s nursery and landscape industry ranks second to tourism in the state, the nursery and landscape industry have a direct positive impact to tourism’s dominant ranking because of its contribution to the aesthetic value and appeal to visitors.
The 2017 wholesale and retail sales sectors of the ornamental horticulture industry in Florida generated total output sales of $21.08 billion, 232,648 jobs, $8.75 billion in employee earnings, and $13.17 billion in value added benefits. The greatest economic impact within the state comes from south Florida, with an estimated total sales output surpassing $7.4 billion and the support of more than 77,000 jobs. For example, Miami Dade County alone has 1500 registered nurseries specializing in ornamental plants.
“But this all comes at a price because south Florida represents a hot spot for plant diseases and an entry point for detrimental invasive species,” said Gazis.
South Florida is unique in many ways agriculturally, explains Gazis.
“Our agricultural landscape is varied in that different types of farms, fields, and nurseries create a patchwork much like a quilt. This is not typical by comparison to how other states grow their commodities,” said Gazis.
In other words, in Florida you can have an avocado farm growing directly adjacent to a palm tree farm. There is no restriction to growing a guava farm next to a nursery bed of coconut palms. This characteristic of Florida’s agricultural community presents its challenges.
“The challenge is that you must have a community effort across industries. We all need to invest in education and training across south Florida to be successful together,” she said.
Edwards Evans, director of UF/IFAS TREC, was quick to point out that the services provided by the clinic over the years have helped to keep many farming operations in business through accurate and timely diagnosis of problems and recommendations leading to quick actions that remedy the situations and result in positive outcomes.
“The Plant Diagnostic Clinic has saved growers thousands of dollars that otherwise could have been spent on treatments with potential adverse consequence for the environment,” he added.
Meanwhile, a typical day for Gazis is at a steady pace. The Plant Diagnostic Clinic records in excess of 365 client interactions a year. Along with a series of educational programs including workshops and seminars. Other client interactions include field visitations to assess disease issues, laboratory and greenhouse tours, office consultations to pest management companies and horticultural consultants seeking clarification and education on diagnosis results and management recommendations.
“The clinic charges a $40 fee for a series of tests,” adds Gazis. “This fee represents a “co-pay” as the costs for the tests needed for diagnosis would be much higher if samples are sent out to a private laboratory.”
“While we are a one-stop shop, we are not a one solution fits all,” add Gazis. “What we provide is very tailored to the need of the client.”
On a side note, the Clinic occasionally receives requests from individual homeowners for a diseased plant testing. While the Clinic does receive this type of submission, homeowners are referred to the county extension agents for resolution. The Clinic is best equipped to service the commercial industry which can use a wide variety of tools to manage diseases within their fields.
Over the course of 2018, the clinic tested 910 samples, reports Gazis. This attests to the rising need and the role it plays in the south Florida market.
“We project we will surpass a thousand submissions by the end of 2019. Diagnosed samples included a variety of foliage, woody ornamentals such as shrubs or small trees, palms, turf, vegetables and fruits.”
The requests originate from commercial ornamental arborists, farmers, horticultural consultants for high end customers, and lawn care landscapers. At times, a clinical trial may be required to determine the best solution and the appropriate management practices.
“In order to provide growers with a toolkit to manage diseases affecting their production, we need to run trials to determine the efficacy of novel tools or techniques (chemical and cultural) that can help control and reduce disease and associated economic losses.”
Gazis and her colleagues at TREC are actively seeking funds to develop the first Tropical Ornamental Production School (TOPS) in the area. If successful, funds will help initiate a program for intense training workshops covering a variety of topics related to tropical and subtropical ornamental production, such as pests, diseases, best practices for nursery production, and worker protection. This program will drive collaboration among UF-TREC ornamental scientists, extension agents, and the local industry.
As far as the future of TREC’s Plant Diagnostic Clinic, Gazis sees an unprecedented growth of its role that will extend past the boundaries of south Florida. She envisions an expansion in infrastructure and services offered to agricultural communities.
“I see us as the hub for research and education on tropical plant pathology in the Americas,” explains Gazis. “I imagine the Plant Diagnostic Clinic as a transdisciplinary center that leads the scientific advances and innovations in plant health and tropical agriculture”
TREC’s Plant Diagnostic Clinic is part of a network of UF/IFAS plant diagnostic laboratories located in five other regions of the state that include the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm, Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee, North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, and the UF/IFAS Plant Diagnostic Center in Gainesville.