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Graduate student studies cost-saving measures for blueberry growers

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For Tori Bradley, learning about cold weather may turn into cold hard cash for Florida blueberry growers.

Bradley, a University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences graduate student, interned with faculty to develop cold-weather protection strategies so blueberry growers can save money.

As part of her UF/IFAS Research internship, Bradley studied the economic advantages for growers who use precision cold protection, according to a new UF/IFAS Extension document, http://bit.ly/1N5A9gc. Bradley studied the differences between precision cold protection and uniform cold protection. Blueberries bloom in late winter or early spring in Florida, making them susceptible to frosts. For uniform strategy, growers start frost protection irrigation when the temperature hovers between 31 and 35 degrees.

By using the precision method, growers can save an average of $44 per acre per season on irrigation pumping costs, depending on their location in Florida, according to Bradley and her faculty mentors.

After consulting with her graduate coordinator, Bradley approached Tatiana Borisova, an associate professor and Extension specialist in the UF/IFAS Food and Resource Economics Department, to do a six-week research project on protecting blueberries during cold periods.

Bradley also worked with Mercy Olmstead, a UF/IFAS assistant professor in horticultural sciences and stone fruit Extension specialist, Jeff Williamson, a UF/IFAS horticultural sciences professor and Extension horticulturalist and Elizabeth Conlan, UF/IFAS horticultural sciences graduate student.

Now a graduate student in food and resource economics, Bradley had worked on research projects as an undergraduate but never as the principal data collector.

“It was challenging, but I learned much more than I expected,” said Bradley, who did the internship after earning her bachelor’s degree at Florida State University and before enrolling in the UF CALS graduate program. “I learned how to interview producers to ask about their practices, while maintaining confidentiality. I also learned to manage large amounts of data and how to write succinctly from complicated data under time constraints.”

The goal of the Extension document, found in the UF/IFAS Electronic Data Information Source, is to help producers think about the economic consequences of their frost protection decisions, Borisova said. Blueberry growers use many kinds of pumps, and they produce several varieties of blueberries, so watering the crop when cold weather approaches is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Precision agriculture recommends management strategies to growers, Borisova said. These recommendations are based on research and real-time monitoring of plant and environmental conditions. Specifically, the system calls for growers to apply water only when the plant can be damaged by cold, based on horticultural science research and real-time weather data, not necessarily based on the temperature dipping to near or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

The method implies that for every bud stage for a crop – in this case, blueberries – water is turned on at different temperatures. That’s because a crop’s sensitivity to cold increases from one bud stage to the next.

But frequently, growers do not have real-time weather information, or they don’t trust it, Borisova said. UF/IFAS faculty are working to further improve the bud-sensitivity recommendations for blueberry cultivars grown in Florida, and trying to help growers adopt bud-sensitivity recommendations these methods to better protect their blueberry crops.

Bradley’s research was made possible through the UF/IFAS research internship program. The research-Extension project, “Critical Bud Temperature Determination in Low-Chill Peach and Blueberries,” is funded by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Specialty Crop Grant Program and is being led by Olmstead.

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Cutline: Tori Bradley (in top photo), a graduate student in the University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, recently completed an internship with several UF/IFAS faculty members. In the internship, Bradley studied the economic impact of precision cold protection for Florida blueberry growers. In the second photo, Jeff Williamson, UF/IFAS professor of horticultural sciences, one of the faculty members who helped Bradley, checks a blueberry crop for freeze damage.

Credits: UF/IFAS

By: Brad Buck, 352-294-3303, bradbuck@ufl.edu

Sources: Tori Bradley, toriraebradley@ufl.edu

Tatiana Borisova, 352-294-7666, tborisova@ufl.edu

Food and Resource Economics Department graduate student Tori Bradley is currently pursuing a Masters of Science degree, MS thesis track.