Using rootstocks to increase blueberry farming sustainability in the South East

Project Overview

LS22-370
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2022: $371,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2025
Grant Recipients: University of Florida; University of Georgia; Florida A&M University
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Gerardo Nunez
University of Florida
Co-Investigators:
Dr. John Diaz
University of Florida
Dr. Islam El-Sharkawy
Florida A&M University
Gabriel Maltais-Landry
University of Florida
Dr. Zilfina Rubio Ames
University of Georgia
Ariel Singerman
University of Florida

Commodities

No commodities identified

Practices

No practices identified

Proposal abstract:

There are over 28,000 acres of blueberry farms in the southeast. Something all these farms have in common is the extensive use of soil inputs. Growers use pine bark, large amounts of fertilizers, and large volumes of irrigation water to support agricultural production. These inputs increase blueberry establishment and production costs, reducing farm profitability and limiting who can grow blueberries in the southeast. Soil inputs also increase the likelihood of soil degradation, nutrient percolation, and water pollution. Reducing or eliminating the need for soil inputs is a critical step to increase the sustainability of blueberry farming systems in the southeast. Grafting blueberry on resilient rootstocks is an avenue to reduce the need for soil inputs, reduce establishment and production costs in blueberry farms, and broaden participation of underrepresented farmers in blueberry production. Previously, we have shown that commercial blueberry production targets can be attained with blueberry grafted on sparkleberry rootstocks. This project seeks to expand on earlier work by designing and testing a reduced input blueberry production system that uses less water, less soil amendments, and less fertilizers than blueberry farms in the southeast currently use. We will use participatory and multidisciplinary research methods to address sustainability across multiple dimensions. First, we will establish a grower advisory board and evaluate grafted blueberry plants in reduced input scenarios in a greenhouse trial. Then, we will conduct in-farm trials in Florida and Georgia where we will evaluate plant stress, agronomic productivity and soil health impacts. Additionally, we will quantify inputs and costs to conduct an investment analysis using data from the farm trials. This will allow us to assess the environmental and economic sustainability of reduced input blueberry farming. We will also seek to impact the social sustainability of blueberry farming through this project. We will utilize a multi-phased, data driven approach to promote adoption of the reduced input blueberry farming. We will work in collaboration with industry stakeholders, university faculty, and grassroots organizations to reach traditional and underrepresented growers. We will identify adoption gaps and information interests among growers. This will inform the design and delivery of educational materials and activities including multi-media products (videos, blog posts, articles, and social media), hands-on learning (field days for growers), and train-the-trainer workshops (regional in-service training for extension agents). We will evaluate the efficacy of educational and informational activities using surveys, follow-up interviews, and site visits to understand the extent of adoption. Ultimately, we expect the reduced input blueberry production system will 1) reduce reliance on practices that compromise soil health and water quality, 2) reduce establishment and production costs in blueberry farms, and 3) remove barriers for the participation of underrepresented groups in blueberry farming. These changes will move blueberry production systems towards environmental, economic, and social sustainability.

Project objectives from proposal:

Our overall goal is to increase the sustainability of blueberry farming systems in the southeastern United States by leveraging the resilience of grafted blueberry plants. Specific goals include:

Objective 1: Develop input reduction thresholds for blueberry production

Objective 2: Design a reduced input production system that uses grafted blueberry plants

Objective 3: Evaluate reduced input blueberry production using agronomic productivity, environmental, and economic sustainability metrics

Objective 4: Increase adoption of the reduced input blueberry production system

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.