New Crops Provide New Hope

By Alison DeLoach

Farmers and ranchers in Northwest Florida are looking to make a comeback after Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc on their crops. Glen Aiken, director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC), is working to help growers affected by the hurricane.

According to Aiken, the affected areas included Leon, Calhoun and Holmes counties. In total, there were approximately 11 counties west of the Big Bend that the hurricane damaged. The total estimated damage to the agriculture industry was about $3 billion.

Th NFREC is facing challenges after Michael. Between the Marianna and Quincy campuses, the estimated cost of damage totals about $1.5 million. Older greenhouses at the Quincy campus were lost but are in the process of being replaced. Marianna took a direct hit from the eye of the hurricane, with 150-mile-per-hour winds causing severe damage. In Marianna, many of the buildings were damaged; a few metal buildings were destroyed. Out of the nine center irrigation pivots, six were destroyed or severely damaged and four need replacement. One greenhouse was lost, and another was damaged. Most of the perimeter fence was taken down due to fallen tree debris. Aiken says workers are in the process of removing the debris and replacing the fence.

In the wake of Hurricane Michael’s damage, there are many different alternative crops that Aiken says growers are considering. One that is currently on the forefront is hemp. UF/IFAS initiated an industrial hemp program, and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is now involved in the project. According to Aiken, this crop shows a lot of potential. The focus is currently on cannabis oil as a high-value cash crop, which is the chemical extracted from the floral parts of the hemp plant. Hemp can also be used for rope, and the grain has potential to be used as a food and as a feed for animals.

As the craft brewery market increases, hop production is another alternative crop. The UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma is currently investigating hops to figure out how best to grow the crop in Florida.

Tung oil extracted from tung trees has multiple purposes, and new products are being developed from this oil. Therefore, tung trees are being looked at as an additional alternative crop.

Aiken also noted carinata, a brassica from the mustard family, produces an oil seed. The extracted oil can be converted to aviation fuel, which makes this crop one of interest to the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. The carinata project is ongoing at Quincy and the drop is also being researched in Georgia, Mississippi and possibly Alabama. Carinata is a cool-season crop that could fit in well with the rotation of warm-season crops.   

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