Engineered Virus to Battle HLB?

Geneticists Enlist Engineered Virus and CRISPR to Battle Citrus Disease

Desperate farmers hope scientists can beat pathogen that is wrecking the US orange harvest

The required public comment period on the application ended last week, and the USDA will now assess the possible environmental effects of the engineered virus.

Field trials of engineered CTV are already under way. If the request is approved, it would be the first time this approach has been used commercially. It could also provide an opportunity to sidestep the regulations and public stigma attached to genetically engineered crops. “There’s a real race on right now to try to save the citrus,” says Carolyn Slupsky, a food scientist at the University of California, Davis. “This disease is everywhere, and it’s horrible.”

The engineered virus is just one option being explored to tackle citrus greening. Other projects aim to edit the genome of citrus trees using CRISPR–Cas9 to make them more resistant to the pest, or engineer trees to express defence genes or short RNA molecules that prevent disease transmission. Local growers have also helped to fund an international project that has sequenced citrus trees to hunt for more weapons against citrus greening.

“There are great scientific opportunities here,” says Bryce Falk, a plant pathologist at the University of California, Davis. “We need to take advantage of new technologies.”

Citrus greening is caused by species from the candidate bacterial genus Candidatus Liberibacter. Spread by sap-sucking, flying insects called Asian citrus psyllids (Diaphorina citri), the bacteria cause citrus trees to make bitter, misshapen fruits that have green lower halves. The disease is also widely known by its Chinese name, huanglongbing.

The first tree in the United States with symptoms was reported in Miami in 2005. “We had the ‘uh-oh’ moment,” says Fred Gmitter, who breeds new citrus varieties at the University of Florida in Lake Alfred.

Some researchers have had accidental success against the disease. Gmitter’s team released a mandarin variety called Sugarbell just as the outbreak was getting under way. Although those trees have since become infected with C. Liberibacter, farmers are able to reap a reasonable crop of sweet oranges if the plants receive proper pruning and nutrition. But it is difficult to build on that success: why the trees are relatively tolerant of the disease remains a mystery.

For years, Southern Gardens Citrus has been genetically engineering plants to express genes taken from spinach that defend against the disease. The company says that the results of field trials suggest some degree of protection. But this approach will take many years to meet regulatory requirements for marketing a genetically modified crop. And consumers may not take kindly to a fruit or juice that comes from a genetically modified tree.

So Southern Gardens Citrus added a different approach, and began the USDA approval process for engineered CTV in February. Instead of modifying the trees, the company wants to alter the genome of a harmless strain of CTV so that it produces the spinach defence gene. The company intends to graft tree limbs infected with the virus onto trees. In April, the USDA announced it would start work on an environmental impact statement, a process that typically takes about two years and will be needed before the department allows the modified virus to be used commercially.

Because the virus does not alter the fruit, this approach may allow farmers to argue that the oranges are not genetically modified, and so avoid regulation and reduce public doubt.

That is also the goal of separate projects looking for genes that confer disease resistance when switched off. If researchers can find such genes, they could use CRISPR to inactivate them. Nian Wang, a plant pathologist also at the University of Florida, is using this approach to edit orange trees, and hopes to know by 2019 whether they are disease-resistant. Others are using RNA interference in psyllids to switch off genes that allow the insects to transmit the bacteria.

For now, one question dominates: whether the citrus industry will still be alive by the time these solutions make it to the groves. “It’s an incredibly devastating disease,” says Gmitter. “Growers needed answers ten years ago.”

The Next Big Disruption In Agriculture

The next big disruption in agriculture

Sometimes a shock to the system can be a very good

In the business world, there’s a term to describe an event that completely changes an existing industry or market. It’s called a disruptor, and it changes how we think, work, and do business.

It can be argued that agriculture has gone through three major disruptions in the last century: the mechanization of farming; the arrival of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; and the genetics revolution which introduced new varieties, new breeding tools, and genetic engineering.

Innovations in each of these fields changed the way we farm, and each resulted in increased productivity and efficiency.

We are now on the cusp of the fourth major disruptor: biology. More specifically, advances in microbiology are opening the eyes of farmers, scientists, those in ag industry, and even venture capitalists to the world beneath the soil surface. And what they are finding down there is truly amazing

In 2012, the American Academy of Microbiology produced a report entitled “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World.” That report claimed that attention to microbiology could “increase the productivity of any crop, in any environment, in an economically viable and ecologically responsible manner.”

More than just a medium that anchors and feeds the crop, soils are teeming with life. Pick up a handful of healthy fertile soil and you will be holding billions of living organisms in your hand (see chart).

In fact, an acre of healthy soil can contain from a few hundred to thousands of pounds of microbial biomass.

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And that isn’t all. According to Dr. Mathew Wallenstein, associate professor at Colorado State University, this handful of soil will have tens of thousands of different microbes. “Any soil will have as much microbial diversity as the diversity of life you would find in a tropical rain forest,” says Wallenstein.

Science reveals that these tiny organisms play a huge role in the growth of plants. Some convert organic matter into nutrient forms that a plant is able to utilize. Others help protect the plant from disease and pests, and some microbes even communicate with plants, enabling the plant to deal with environmental stresses and reduce the impact of drought, for example.

“Microbes are critical to sustainable agriculture,” Wallenstein says.

It is the discovery of such symbiotic and complementary relationships that is leading scientists to turn their focus from plant health to soil health. For example, instead of just feeding the plant, farmers are being encouraged to feed the microbes necessary for the conversion of chemical fertilizers into nutrients which the plant can take up.

Scientists are also trying to isolate microbes which enable a plant to resist pests, and then develop a process for growing these desired agricultural biologicals, packaging them, and devising a process which farmers can use to introduce these organisms into their cropping system.

In many ways, this idea is not new. We have known for decades about the value of nodulation for legumes to fix their own nitrogen. Farmers inoculate crops such as alfalfa, soybeans, peas, and lentils to ensure maximized N fixation.

But it is only recently that science has learned the impacts that so many other organisms have on plant growth. And, in spite of such advances in the study of soil microbes, scientists are still only able to grow about one per cent of known soil organisms in a lab setting.

New products

Biological products have been sold for many decades. Unfortunately, many of the early biologicals were marketed as miracle products that could do everything from increasing yields to preventing disease and pests to even improving soils. They were often unregulated, and there was no review of their efficacy, which led to a feeling among farmers that all biological products were “snake oil.”

Wallenstein points out that the biological products on the market today are targeted for their activity. Science defines how they work and farmers know what to expect when using the product. In the U.S., all biologicals are regulated at the state level for efficacy, content, and analysis.

Wallenstein says the addition of the right microbes will benefit any farm by enhancing productivity. Under optimal environmental and fertility conditions, the addition of a biological will enable a plant to produce more than its genetic potential suggests is possible.

Wallenstein even launched his own company a few years ago named Growcentia, which is marketing Mammoth P, a microbial product designed to increase the availability of phosphorus to plants.

Phil de Vries, meanwhile, is the soil and plant health adviser with Agriculture Solutions, a full service soil nutrient retailer in Elora, Ont. This company supplies farmers with a wide range of soil fertility products including biological fertilizers, soil conditioners, bio-stimulants, soil amendments, and seed treatments.

“Microbes are essential for both plant growth and healthy soil,” de Vries says.

For this reason, Agriculture Solutions has developed a suite of biological products to address fertility and pH problems in soils. They can feed native microbes already in the soil, and even introduce microbes which work symbiotically with plants to better utilize fertilizers and soil minerals.

Agricultural Solutions also sell biologicals designed to reduce stress in plants due to environmental conditions, nutritional deficiencies, and pests.

Likely the biggest question farmers would have about this kind of product list is how to tell if such products are needed on their farms in the first place. De Vries points out there are scientific tests which can assess the amount of soil life by measuring the amount of nitrogen mineralization or the amount of microbial respiration. However, these tests are expensive, so he suggests a quick and easy test that farmers can do themselves is to look for earthworms. Earthworms are at the top of the soil life food chain and the presence of large numbers of earthworms is an indicator of high microbe numbers.

While most of Agriculture Solutions’ sales are in southern Ontario, the company does have customers across Canada and the U.S., and de Vries notes they held a meeting this past winter in Regina for the first time with a very large turnout of prairie growers interested in soil biology and microbial products.

On the other hand

The research and development of new biological products will add a significant cost to farmers. Markets and Markets, a global market research organization, has estimated the agricultural microbial market was already worth US$2.17 billion in 2015. They estimate the market for microbials by 2021 should double to US$5.07 billion.

With growth like this, it is no wonder there has been a rush by ag industry to capture some of this market. In the January 6, 2016 issue of Scientific American, Thomas Schafer, vice-president of bio-ag research at Novozymes stated: “Companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and BASF are working on microbes because they believe (the technology) has the potential to reduce chemistry and allow us to live more sustainably.”

In fact, Novozymes and Monsanto are actively co-operating in this area, with Novozymes focusing on finding, identifying and growing beneficial biologicals, while Monsanto concentrates on field testing these new products. In 2015, BioAg (as their joint venture is named) tested over 2,000 microbial coatings in over half a million plots in the U.S. Midwest. The five top biologicals increased corn yields more than four bushels per acre, and BioAg hopes to have a new microbial product available in the U.S. in 2017.

Success like this has led to predictions that biological products will be used on half the cropland in the U.S. by 2025.

Before you commit to using biologicals across your entire farm, however, here are a few things to consider. First, would the microbial product be registered by CFIA or PMRA? Fertility products require CFIA approval. If the product is listed as a pest control agent it has to be approved by PMRA.

Second, read the label and follow the directions carefully. Some biological products will require multiple applications to be effective. In an excellent paper, “Microbial Amendments and Microbe-friendly Additives,” author Tony Pattison, soil health team leader, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries wrote: “Each microbial agent has specific temperature, moisture and pH requirements for growth and colonisation of the soil. It is very difficult to generalise about the requirements that favour the proliferation of microbial agents. There are few studies that track the survival of microbial inoculants. However, one study investigated the addition of bacteria to the soil and found a tenfold reduction in the population of that bacteria in the soil after four days, 100,000-fold reduction after 50 days, and after 90 days the bacteria was undetectable in the soil.” (Esnard et al, 1998)

Pattison’s paper provides an excellent, easy-to-read overview of soil life and the effect microbes have on plant life. You can view it here as a PDF on the Queensland Government website.

Finally, whenever you use a biological product, leave an untreated control strip to see if the product is actually making a difference in your operation and to enable you to determine the return on your investment from that product.


Support soil microbes with good farming practices

Many farmers are likely hesitant to purchase new, relatively unproven biological products, especially given current low grain prices. However, all farmers can benefit from the research into soil biology without even purchasing novel soil amendments.

Dr. Bobbi Helgason, soil microbiologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, has studied the impact of farming on soil health and the microbial community. She says farmers who have adopted modern, sustainable farming practices benefit from increased microbe populations and healthier soils.

“No-till farming has had a huge impact on soil health,” Helgason says. “It has increased the organic matter in the soils, which means more food for microbes.”

Helgason also points out that farmers who use cover crops also increase food supply for microbes.

Also, today’s farmers have introduced a wider diversity of crops into their rotations which encourages diversity in the microbial population.

Helgason points out that all soils contain a huge number of diverse microbes, so the addition of a jug of a biological product is merely a drop in a very large bucket. It is just as important to feed the native microbes in your soils as adding a few more. The first step toward increasing soil health and the microbe populations is to learn more about the importance of microbes to the soil and plants. Then, follow a sustainable farming system that supports microbes.

Georgia Citrus

Georgia Citrus Seeking to Make Its Mark

Georgia Citrus Association grove tour meeting
Dr. Wayne Hanna of the University of Georgia addresses an interested crowd on a grove tour during a recent Georgia Citrus Association meeting.
Photo courtesy of the Georgia Citrus Growers Association

Most of us in Florida are not accustomed to thinking of Georgia as a citrus-producing state. Though there has long been a smattering of homeowner and niche-market Satsuma plantings, they were not what one would consider commercial enterprises. Things might be changing.

Over the past few years, citrus production meetings were held in the North Florida border counties of Jackson and Gadsden, as well as Perry, FL, and Auburn, AL. Each of these areas have been seriously exploring the possibility of commercial citrus production. Most recently, and certainly most notably, was a meeting in February of the newly formed Georgia Citrus Association (GCA). Though the association was just born in October, it now boasts 81 member companies and attracted 278 people to its inaugural meeting at the University of Georgia Tifton campus.

Membership includes nine companies from Florida (several farms straddle the border), and a couple from Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Meeting attendees represented most states in the Southeast.

Are You Serious?

While reading this article, some Florida farmers and nursery growers are likely questioning the sanity of such endeavors and are wondering what is driving interest in such a drastic shift in the perceived northern range of domestic citrus production. Conversations in Tifton indicated this newfound interest is based on several factors:

  • Average temperatures in these regions not hitting the extreme lows that were once commonplac
  • Better freeze protection techniques
  • Interest in seizing upon declining production further south, and the hope that Asian citrus psyllid pressure will remain low in their areas
  • Newly released varieties that appear to offer superior cold weather performance
  • A hot market for soft citrus

Perhaps one of the most surprising gleanings from the Tifton meeting is that interest is not limited to border counties. Interest in Georgia appears to be statewide. Lindy Savelle, GCA President, informed us that she has had calls from interested growers in Northwest Georgia and counties west of Atlanta, well above the old “Gnat Line.”

To date, there has been widespread support from Florida in helping along the new northern production area. Ralph Howells spoke at the recent meeting about marketing. Travis Murphy spoke about production and freeze protection, and Billy Murphy and Phillip Rucks were there to answer questions related to nursery issues.

So, What Are They Planting?

Most of the interest remains focused on Satsuma and Satsuma-like varieties. There is somewhat of an established market for this type of soft citrus fruit and the cold hardiness of these varieties has been well documented (especially on trifoliate rootstocks). Dr. Wayne Hanna, University of Georgia, recently released several interesting varieties that have been exclusively licensed in Georgia to 1 Dog Ventures, the only all-citrus nursery in Georgia. Dr. Hanna, himself a citrus enthusiast, set out to reduce the seeds in selections that had shown tremendous resilience in the face of minimal care and cold temperatures.

  • ‘Sweet Frost’ is an irradiated Changsha mandarin with two to three seeds per fruit. It has a Brix range of 11-12, it is very easy peel, well-colored, and matures (in GA) in November or December.
  • ‘Grand Frost’ is an irradiated Ichang lemon. This is a large lemon (25 centimeters to 28 cm in circumference) with about 8 Brix and high juice content. It has nice, bright-yellow color and a maturity range of November through January.
  • ‘Pink Frost’ is a red grapefruit, with characteristics not dissimilar to ‘Ruby Red,’ but with somewhat deeper color. It averages 30 cm to 35 cm in circumference, has Brix 8-11, and matures (in GA) November through March. It averages three seeds per fruit. This variety was identified in Georgia. It was a high seed fruit, with approximately 60 seeds before being irradiated.

Dr. Hanna noted that the non-irradiated versions of these varieties each took 0°F in the 1985 freeze with no irrigation. The trees were 10 years old at the time. Post-freeze, the lemon lost 18 inches of limbs and the tangerine lost 12 inches. The two- to four-year-old trees presently in the field survived 18°F with some young leaf discoloration during the 2014 freeze. Again, this was with no freeze protection. The varieties have not been (legitimately) introduced into Florida, but there may be interest in doing so.

Rooney Secures Citrus Disease Research Funding

Rooney Secures Millions For Citrus In Spending Bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Tom Rooney (FL-17), co-chair of the Congressional Citrus Caucus, secured just over $61 million in funding to combat citrus greening disease in the 2017 Consolidated Appropriations bill that will be voted on in the House of Representatives this week. Florida’s citrus industry employees 75,000 people and accounts for $9 billion of the agriculture industry’s total economic impact.

Rooney is one of three members of Florida’s Congressional delegation to sit on the prestigious House Appropriations Committee and he is the only Florida member serving on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. In that capacity, he has worked on behalf of Florida’s citrus growers and producers to secure critical funding for citrus disease research programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The 2017 Agriculture Appropriations bill includes $7.5 million to sustain the Huanglongbing Multiagency Coordination Group’s (HLB-MAC) recent research gains in early detection, greening management strategies, and therapies to treat infected trees and $53.8 million for the USDA’s Citrus Health Response Program (CHRP). CHRP is a nationwide effort to protect the U.S. citrus industry from invasive pests and diseases, like HLB, and funds for this program allow the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to partner with states and local entities to develop a cure for citrus greening disease.

“I represent the largest citrus-producing district in the country and my growers have experienced firsthand how greening disease decimates Florida’s citrus industry,” Rooney said. “Since we first saw citrus greening surface in Florida in 2005, citrus crop has declined precipitously and is expected to hit all-time low for the 2016 to 2017 season. Since I was elected in 2008, one of my top priorities has been finding a cure for citrus greening and this money will help to get us there. This $61 million investment is urgently-needed to sustain progress on research and development of a cure for citrus greening and to prevent the American citrus industry from becoming extinct. In Florida, and especially my district, citrus isn’t just a crop, it’s a way of life.”

2160 Rayburn House Office Building · Washington, D.C. · 20515

Phone: (202) 225-5792 · www.rooney.house.gov

Industrial Hemp To Replace Orange?

Hemp, Inc. ( OTC PINK : HEMP ) reports Florida legislators are looking to ease restrictions on industrial hemp research. According to the Florida State Senate, house bill 1217 that “authorizes specified universities in state to engage in industrial hemp research projects” has been “pending review of CS under Rule 7.18(c)” since Wednesday of last week. Representative Ralph Massullo, sponsor of the bill, said industrial hemp is a viable crop option for industry-starved rural areas and may “even surpass oranges.” Under the proposed law, “universities could see how Florida’s climate affects the plant and what market there is for the byproducts.” Some Floridians believe industrial hemp could become the next agricultural powerhouse.

Bruce Perlowin, CEO of Hemp, Inc. commented, “Florida has been cautious when it comes to hemp since the government banned it alongside marijuana. This is why we continually educate the public on the difference between hemp and marijuana. Industrial hemp has absolutely no recreational applications. It only has medical and industrial applications. You can’t get high on hemp if you wanted to. It is impossible. While the plants are closely related, hemp has only very small traces of THC.”

The proposed Florida house bill states:

Industrial hemp is a suitable crop for this state, and its production will contribute positively to the future of agriculture in the state. The infrastructure needed to process industrial hemp will increase business opportunities and new jobs in communities throughout the state. As a food crop, industrial hemp seeds and oil produced from the seeds have high nutritional value, including healthy fats and proteins. As a fiber crop, industrial hemp can be used in themanufacture of products such as clothing, building supplies, and animal bedding.

The orange is iconic of Florida, however, the citrus crop has been suffering from “citrus greening” since the disease was found in the south Florida region of Homestead and Florida City back in August, 2005. Last year, a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences survey reported citrus growers in Florida said as much as 90 percent of their acreage and 80 percent of their trees were infected by the deadly greening disease, which made a huge dent in the state’s $10.7 billion citrus industry. (Source: Science Daily/ University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences)

The greening disease is a bacterial infection that starves the trees of nutrients and causes damages to the roots. This in turn causes the fruit produced to be too small to juice or sell.

While republican Representative Ben Albritton wants scientists to do five years of research before the state approves commercial growers, Representative Rick Roth believes farmers should not have to wait to start cultivating a more viable crop as industrial hemp. The bill is currently in the House chamber for the first read by the Agriculture and Property Rights Subcommittee.

Industrial hemp can be used for a wide range of products, including fibers, construction, food, paper, insulation materials, textiles, cosmetic products, and beverages, to name a few and is estimated to be used in more than twenty-five thousand products spanning multiple markets (agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, electronics, furniture, food/nutrition/beverages, paper, construction materials, personal care and others).

“The industrial hemp industry is here to stay and it’s only going to grow. Florida, in particular, has been trying to slow that evolutionary progress down by not legalizing industrial hemp in the past but it’s like trying to sweep back an incoming tide with a broom. Legislators are again taking action to promote industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity. It will be interesting to see how long they’ll be able to hold back the tide. I suspect it won’t be too much longer,” said Perlowin.

As more states legalize industrial hemp, more opportunities become available for Hemp, Inc. to process the raw hemp. Hemp, Inc.’s commercial, large scale, 70,000 square foot industrial hemp processing facility, on 9 acres of land in Spring Hope, North Carolina is the only one of this magnitude in the entire western hemisphere. The milling portion of Hemp, Inc.’s industrial hemp processing facility has just been completed. Once the shredder/grinder and conveyor (the parts that feed the mill) are installed over the next 2 weeks, full production of the approximate 18 million pounds of Kenaf (the cousin plant to hemp) will begin. Hemp, Inc.’s industrial hemp processing facility is bound to become the mecca of this new clean green agricultural and industrial American revolution.

Aligned with Hemp, Inc.’s Triple Bottom Line approach, Perlowin is exploring the possibilities of developing Hemp Growing Veteran Village Kins Communities in Florida and is actively looking for 1,000+ acres (similar to the 500-acre demonstration community being built in Arizona where Perlowin plans on growing 300 acres of hemp this year) that would consist of smaller lots for Kins Domains (eco-villages). “The eco-villages would also include organic gardens, natural beehives, a pond, a living fence and other elements,” said Perlowin.

From rehabilitation to job creation, Perlowin says this model presents a holistic solution to those individuals that all Americans owe a great debt of gratitude towards… the American veterans. Perlowin expects this model to produce very lucrative revenue for Hemp, Inc., the veterans themselves and the local communities these Kins Communities are built near. “The infrastructure for ‘The Hemp Growing, CBD-Producing, Veteran-Village Kins Community,’ which takes time to build, is already in place in Arizona which I’ve been building for the last 4 years and can be duplicated for Florida,” concluded Perlowin.

CRDF President Discusses Bactericides

CRDF President Discusses Bactericides

HLB

Tom Jerkins, president of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation, several years ago led a crowd at Florida Citrus Mutual’s annual meeting in chanting, “We need bactericides now!” The bactericides, which growers hope will significantly reduce HLB impacts on citrus trees, have been available to citrus growers for more than a year now. Most growers reportedly are using them, at least on some blocks.

Jerkins recently was asked his impressions of how the bactericides are working or may work against HLB. “In terms of perfect data and perfect representations and really great conclusions, not quite yet,” he says. “Anecdotally, I believe many in the industry believe that there is some improvement.”

 Jerkins says data from the registrants of the bactericides indicates that over time, the products can affect the level of HLB-causing bacteria in the tree. Also over time, he says, the registrants’ data indicates that the products “can improve tree health … maybe to where there’s statistically improvement in yield maybe in the second or third year.”

“The summary of all that is, (it’s) looking like it’s going to be impactful,” Jerkins says. “And the question then becomes, by how much? Does it affect yield or revenues by 5 percent, 10, 15, 20? I don’t know. Those answers will be revealed to us, and then it’s up to growers to see what’s the cost of the impact and will the trees continue to improve in the future over time. We don’t know those things. But I will say unequivocally that we’re extremely thankful to have them at our disposal now so we can use them and see if we can get an economic benefit out of them.”

Bucks Toward BMPs

<!–728x90-crop-fcst-ann–>By Tacy Callies

The names of the organizations and programs that provide funding to Florida citrus growers for best management practices (BMPs) projects — SWFWMD, FARMS, EQIP, etc. — can sound like a big bowl of alphabet soup. But in reality, they represent much more than that and can save growers significant sums of money. Below is a breakdown that summarizes the various available funding sources growers can consider.

CITRUS GROVE RENOVATION/RE-ESTABLISHMENT SUPPORT PROGRAM
If you’re a grower looking for cost-share assistance with BMP projects, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ (FDACS) Office of Agricultural Water Policy (OAWP) is a good place to start. The Citrus Grove Renovation/Re-establishment Support Program is funded at $5.5 million. It provides cost-share funding for improvements to irrigation and nutrient management when replanting or re-establishing groves.

Qualifications include the following:

  • History of citrus production since at least 2008
  • Enrollment in the OAWP Citrus BMP program
  • Documentation of purchase of tree seedlings for replanting
  • Must be a minimum of 10 acres
  • Must consist of complete replanting in project blocks
  • Implementation assurance evaluation at end of period, including Mobile Irrigation Lab evaluation
  • Division of Plant Industry Compliance Agreement
  • Practices must be designed and installed to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) standards and specifications
  • Project must be completed on or before June 30, 2017

Eligible practices and improvements are reimbursed at 75 percent with a $250,000 cap. Engineering and design costs are reimbursed at 100 percent. Project costs can be split with other water management district programs or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), as long as total combined reimbursement does not exceed 75 percent of eligible project costs.

Examples of cost-share items include stormwater-management improvements and upgrades, irrigation systems/components necessary for replanting, weather stations, soil moisture sensors, nutrient management improvements and more.

In December, the program was expanded to include the replacement of deteriorating irrigation main lines and laterals (transit pipes) when paired with a fully automated system. However, the program expansion is only available for groves in the Northern Everglades Estuary Protection Area, which includes parts of Highlands, Okeechobee, Martin, Polk, Osceola, Orange, Glades, Hendry, Palm Beach, Charlotte, Lee, St. Lucie and Lake counties.

FARMS AND MINI-FARMS PROGRAMS
The Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems (FARMS) program is an agricultural cost-share reimbursement program that reduces groundwater withdrawals through conservation and alternative-water-supply BMPs. FARMS is a partnership developed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) and FDACS.

Chris Zajac, FARMS program manager for the SWFWMD, says $6 million in cost-share funding is available annually, and the current funding period ends September 30, 2017. “The FARMS program is open year-round, and there is plenty of money available,” he says.

A grower must incur the cost of the project up front before applying for the FARMS funding. Typically, the cost-share funding is at 50 percent, but it can be as high as 75 percent in some areas.

Like most cost-share programs, FARMS is open not only to citrus growers, but to all ag producers. Zajac says a common FARMS project for citrus is tailwater recovery, which he says reduces the amount of potable groundwater use and improves water quality — potentially leading to an increase in yield.

Automation of irrigation systems can also be cost-shared through FARMS. “Electronic controls can save time, money and water,” says Zajac. Weather stations and soil moisture probes are additional items that fall under FARMS.

To be eligible for the program, growers must be in compliance with their water permits.

According to Aaron Keller, press secretary for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, an example of a highly successful FARMS project was completed at Premier Citrus Management, LLC near Arcadia. The project consisted of three reservoirs to collect tailwater and surface water to offset groundwater used for supplemental irrigation over approximately 1,600 acres of citrus. The project resulted in water quantity savings and water quality benefits. Previously, Premier was withdrawing nearly 100 percent of its permitted groundwater quantities for irrigation. The quality of water used in groundwater irrigation was contributing not only to increased stresses on the citrus crop, but on the water quality in the surrounding watershed.

Keller reports that the completed project has exceeded the expectation for a 30 percent reduction in groundwater use. According to Keller, Premier’s Bryan Beswick says not only are the systems working beyond the original expectations, but that the performance is improving over time. Improved irrigation system efficiency has resulted in reduced fuel costs and air-quality impacts. The water-quality improvements have also resulted in slightly improved fruit yields. And according to the SWFWMD, water quality has significantly improved at five sites within the watershed.

The Mini-FARMS program, a spinoff of FARMS, is a cost-share program for ag operations of 100 acres or less that are implementing practices to conserve water and protect water quality within the SWFWMD. Growers can receive 75 percent of their project costs, up to $5,000 per project.

Mini-FARMS projects can include, but are not limited to: soil moisture probes/tensiometers, weather stations with evapotranspiration measurements, water quality and soil pH testing kits, soil and tissue testing, and irrigation pumps, controls, filtration and infrastructure.

To be eligible for Mini-FARMS, growers must be:

  • Actively engaged in agriculture for the last two years
  • In compliance with SWFWMD regulatory requirements
  • Enrolled in the applicable FDACS-approved BMP program

OTHER WATER MANAGEMENT DISTRICT PROGRAMS
The St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) Agricultural Cost-Share Program assists growers with water conservation and reduction of nutrient runoff.

The application period for the program is once per year, typically beginning in May or June and concluding in August or September. The program has set aside $3 million for 2017, says Suzanne Archer, technical program coordinator – agricultural assistance. Of that figure, she notes that $1.5 million will be available in citrus-producing regions.

Examples of funded citrus projects have included variable-rate fertilizer application and irrigation-system retrofits (from overhead to drip). Other eligible projects include soil moisture and climate sensor telemetry, rainwater harvesting, subirrigation drain tile and tailwater recovery and reuse.

Cost-share could be up to 75 percent, not to exceed $250,000 annually, for the design, construction and implementation costs for approved projects.

The Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) offers an agricultural conservation cost-share program with ongoing enrollment. Darrell Smith, director for the district’s agricultural and environmental projects division, says cost-sharing is generally 75 percent for efficiency upgrades to irrigation systems, fertigation tanks, remote monitoring controls and other projects that increase water efficiency. Funds can be used on projects such as irrigation retrofits, new water-saving technologies and alternative water supplies.

ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY INCENTIVES PROGRAM
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s NRCS. It’s a voluntary conservation program for farmers which promotes agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible goals. EQIP offers financial and technical help to install or implement structural and management practices on eligible ag land.

Florida citrus growers can receive cost-share funding from EQIP for irrigation systems, irrigation water management, nutrient management, erosion control, pollinator habitats, agrichemical handling facilities, conservation cover, critical area planting, combustion system improvement, windbreaks/shelterbelts, field borders, filter strips, irrigation reservoirs and integrated pest management.

A grower can receive a maximum $450,000 in EQIP funding, as authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill. The cost-share rates vary, but are typically 50 to 75 percent.

Key eligibility requirements include:

  • Established farm records with the Farm Service Agency
  • Adjusted gross income limit
  • Highly Erodible Land/Wetland Conservation compliance
  • If applying as an entity, must have a D-U-N-S Number (unique nine-digit identification number for each physical location of a business) and registration in the System for Award Management
  • Must own or have control of the land for the life of the contract, deed or lease

The application process is continual, although funding selections are typically made once per year.