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A living laboratory - UF Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center

By Tami Stevenson

Border rows of sunflowers are used to attract stink bugs thereby keeping the majority of them from getting to the crops. They cannot pass up a tasty sunflower. When the population of stink bugs gets high enough on the sunflowers they will spray that row with a targeted insecticide instead of having to spray the crops. That method is known as trap cropping. -Photo: Tami Stevenson

In the eastern part of Suwannee County lies a 330 acre farm that has been turned into a living laboratory for scientists, professors, teachers, farmers and anyone wanting to learn more about certain aspects of gardening. The University of Florida purchased the land in the 1950’s. Until about three years ago the farm was managed more traditionally; today it is a living laboratory to study integrated pest management. According to University of Florida County Extension Agent Robert Hochmuth, who has been an extension agent for 35 years and been in the north Florida area since 1988, said they received a three year Integrated Pest Management (IPM) grant from USDA, NIFA to transform the farm into a teaching field laboratory.

Instead of simply spraying everything with insecticides Hochmuth said the integrated approach means taking a number of different strategies and integrating them together for an overall approach, managing pests by using crop placement, encouraging favorable insects and wildlife (beneficials) and the use of selective minimal spraying.

University of Florida County Extension Agent Robert Hochmuth looking at the insects on the sunflowers. -Photo: SVT Staff

“It just has been incredible how fast the population of good guys has responded here when we gave them a chance. It’s just been incredible, whether it’s pollinators or beneficial insects or birds,” said Hochmuth. He said they brought in bluebirds and they have been real workhorses. He said the program is not just about the spray/not spray thing. They have incorporated the native plant habitat to give the beneficials a place where they can harbor and thrive. They have increased those areas and have honey bees, bat houses and bird boxes for chickadees, bluebirds and others. He said the birds mostly populate these birdhouses in the spring and early summer.

“We are using the sunflowers for trap cropping and buckwheat to bring in pollinators and beneficials so that they all have a place to live and work on the farm,” he said. They also use spotted bee balm and a number of other rotating crops to attract the beneficials thereby always having something in bloom for them throughout the year.

A team of approximately 25 University of Florida county and state faculty and agency representatives offer their varied areas of expertise to make the living lab a success.

University of Florida Professor of Entomology Oscar Liburd was there setting traps in order to study the population numbers of the Grape Root Borer insect that attacks farmers grapes.

These pepper plants are part of a two acre certified organic block where they try different kinds of fertilizer sources and mulches incorporating Sunn Hemp into the mulch. -Photo: SVT Staff

University of Florida Professor of Entomology Oscar Liburd inspecting a trap he made for the Grape Root Borer insect. There is another hanging from the wild grape vines in the background.

“The larvae actually cause the damage,” Liburd said. “They feed on the root system and cause the leaves to turn yellow.” Liburd said they seem to prefer cultivated grapes rather than wild grapes but was also looking into whether the wild grapes simply had a better resistance/recovery from the larvae.

Stink bugs are a real pest, Hochmuth and his team are using a border of sunflowers around the area they want to protect from the obnoxious creatures. “Stinkbugs cannot resist sunflowers. When the population of stink bugs builds up high enough on the sunflowers we will come in here and spray just this row, for instance, using an insecticide that does minimal damage to beneficials, and that keeps us from having to spray where they would have gone to, which is the crops.” He said they have done such a good job on the stink bug population using this method that they only find a very few of them now.

The above photo shows the farm’s citrus, olive and fig trees. -Photo: Bob Hochmuth

These young fig trees are bearing fruit already, they are less than 2 years old.

When someone mentions a banker plan most people think of checking accounts, mortgages and saving money, but on the farm a banker plan is something much different. For instance, they have crape myrtle planted to attract the crape myrtle aphid. The aphids in turn attract beneficial insects that attack the crape myrtle aphids and then other aphids on the farm that are harmful to crops. “That process is known as a banker plan,” said Hochmuth.

There are approximately eight acres of land dedicated to fruit crops. “Our purpose here is to evaluate different new crops that might do well in this area.” They raise mayhaw, oriental non astringent persimmons, pomegranate, various varieties of blueberries and cold hardy Satsuma. They also have olive and fig trees. The olive trees are only two years old and already bearing fruit. The fig trees are less than two years old and bearing fruit as well.

These olive trees are only 2 years old and already bearing fruit.

“The orange and grapefruit really don’t grow well here, they’re too susceptible to freezes, but the Satsuma, which is a type of tangerine, is cold hardy and there is a revival of that industry up here. There is a lot of interest in cold hardy citrus for north Florida and south Georgia.” Hochmuth said there was a meeting in Valdosta talking about Satsuma as an alternative crop a couple weeks ago and around 90 farmers attended.

They have a two acre certified organic block where they try different kinds of fertilizer sources and mulches incorporating Sunn Hemp into the mulch. They are testing grain sorghum, forage sorghum and now a third category called energy sorghum. They have a plant breeder that is testing the sorghum for use in biomass energy, like ethanol. They also are growing sesame. Hochmuth said there is commercial acreage of sesame that is being grown in Suwannee County this year as well.

The spiny pom pom-like tufts hanging from this tree are chestnuts. -Photo: SVT Staff

There are many specialty crops growing on the farm and it’s very diverse. One of the most unique aspects and what they are probably known best for is their work with hydroponics. Unfortunately it is in between seasons at this time. He said early spring is a good time to see that in full swing. They have six structures for their hydroponic program. They will have tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cut flowers, herbs, vertical towers and floating systems, lettuce, edible flowers and more. “This is the best facility for training programs for hydroponics,” he said.

The facility provides a hands on opportunity for farmers, gardeners and the general public to be able to come and learn by actually seeing the growth in progress rather than learning about it in a lecture setting. “In addition to the IPM program, the center is here to serve the needs of this community within the resources that we have here.”

Chestnut after it's fallen from a tree. -Photo: SVT Staff

Currently they are preparing for their fall festival. In late October and early November they invite the pre-k through fourth grade to the farm. They are mowing trails for two mazes; one through the Sunn Hemp and the other through the sorghum for the festival. They also have a pumpkin patch where children can pick their own miniature pumpkin. The festival provides many learning opportunities for kids of all ages.

Anyone that has questions about the farm or that wishes to visit should call the Suwannee County Extension office at 386-362-2771.