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Sanjay Shukla and UF/IFAS Extension Innovation

Innovation has long been a value embedded in UF/IFAS Extension programming. From our first days over a century ago to what we are delivering today, Extension faculty have been committed to using technology and innovation in the delivery of educational programs. In fact, innovation is singled out as one of our ten specific institutional values. (To see all ten values, check out the UF/IFAS Extension Roadmap.)

I recently nominated one of our most innovative Extension specialists, Sanjay Shukla, for the 2018 National Award for Excellence in Extension. Dr. Shukla is a professor with the agricultural and biological engineering department of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Since 2001, Dr. Shukla has been stationed at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee.

For the past 15 years, Dr. Shukla has been a key partner in several very exciting UF/IFAS Extension initiatives that hold promise for significantly improving water quality and water availability in Florida, the Southeast, our nation and the world. His skills as a researcher and UF/IFAS Extension water-resources specialist are equaled by his ability to develop innovations that address critical public needs in practical and sustainable ways.

Dr. Shukla’s workplace is located in the heart of southwest Florida’s vegetable-farming country, which encompasses Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties. This area also supports significant citrus and beef-cattle production. All of these industries can impact nutrient levels in local watersheds, a major concern for producers, UF/IFAS faculty, policymakers and the public.

One of the greatest ongoing challenges for UF/IFAS researchers is to find new methods for optimizing agricultural water-use efficiency and reducing the impacts of agricultural industries on water quality. In turn, one of the greatest challenges for UF/IFAS Extension personnel is to find ways of motivating producers to adopt those new methods and bring about positive change.

When Dr. Shukla arrived at the Immokalee center, he initially planned to address both of these challenges by carrying out research and Extension efforts aimed at helping producers make incremental changes to their operations and management practices. However, as Dr. Shukla engaged in more and more discussions with producers, he noted that there were often practical barriers that prevented his water-use recommendations from being fully implemented.

He also noted that many academic discussions of water conservation seemed to involve an unspoken assumption that producers would follow science-based recommendations simply because they were developed by experts and represented “the right thing to do.” At the same time, Dr. Shukla says, he continued to see a disconnect between the science-based recommendations put forward by UF/IFAS and the actual management practices implemented by producers.

Gradually, Dr. Shukla realized that it would be far easier to convince producers to change their management practices if there were tangible benefits for doing so. In 2003, he became involved in a project to temporarily store surface water on low-lying parts of central Florida cattle ranches, to prevent flooding and reduce nutrient runoff.

At the time, he realized that a payment system could generate interest among ranchers, and Dr. Shukla even submitted a grant proposal outlining the idea. Although the proposal wasn’t funded, Dr. Shukla’s work came to the attention of the World Wildlife Fund, which had obtained the necessary funding and state approval to develop and implement a pilot project much like the one Dr. Shukla envisioned.

The pilot project was called the Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project. In 2007, organizers recruited Dr. Shukla to their “documentation team,” where he and colleagues devised methods to accurately estimate the number of gallons in a body of surface water and measure the changes in water chemistry that occur during storage. It was the nation’s first example of a state-funded Payment for Environmental Services effort that paid ranchers for their assistance. The pilot project, which has been completed, led to the creation of a follow-up, the Northern Everglades Payment for Environmental Services Program, launched in 2011.

The other technical innovation from Dr. Shukla is Compact Bed Geometry (CBG), a new approach to bed configuration in crop production systems using plastic mulch. Dr. Shukla developed his approach after conducting research to determine the ideal height for crop beds used to produce tomato, bell pepper and eggplant, three of the most widely grown Florida crops that are typically cultivated on plastic mulch.

The standard height used for crop beds was 6 to 8 inches, with a width of 30 to 36 inches. Dr. Shukla’s research showed that this configuration was inefficient, because the low bed elevation combined with Florida’s thin soils enabled some of the irrigation water to penetrate the soil to levels below the crop plants’ root zone, where it was considered lost.

To resolve this problem, Dr. Shukla began experimenting with other bed configurations. He found that beds 10 to 12 inches tall and 16 to 24 inches wide seem to be optimal for tomato, bell pepper and eggplant. The taller, narrower beds improve water-use efficiency for these crops to such a degree that growers who’ve adopted the system have been able to cut their irrigation use in half – using one strip of irrigation drip tape instead of two – with no loss in yield or quality.

Furthermore, CBG offers other benefits including reduced need for fertilizer, soil fumigants, pesticides and plastic sheeting. The taller, narrower beds protect crops from flooding more effectively than standard beds and leaves more bare ground between crop rows, reducing storm water runoff from crop fields. Finally, early indications are that workers will experience less back strain when tending or harvesting crops grown using CBG because they won’t have to bend forward as much to reach the plants.

Dr. Shukla has been promoting CBG to vegetable farmers through his Extension programming, and it’s currently being used on about 11,000 acres in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Potentially, CBG could be used on tomato, bell pepper and eggplant production totaling about 150,000 acres nationwide, a 25-fold increase over current CBG acreage.

Tomato, bell pepper and eggplant all belong to the nightshade family, of course, so it may be that other crop plants commonly grown with plastic mulch will require a slightly different bed configuration. Dr. Shukla is currently researching this possibility, experimenting with strawberry and watermelon, two other Florida mainstays. He is also collaborating with university faculty in California and Virginia to develop optimal dimensions for crop beds used for popular commodities in those states.

Dr. Shukla exemplifies today’s creative and entrepreneurial Extension faculty at the state and county level. He is just one of the hundreds of UF/IFAS Extension faculty and staff who put innovative thinking to work for Florida agriculture, businesses, families and communities each and every day.

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