Turning Florida Growers Into Plant Disease Detectives

Plant Disease Detective in Action

When planning what extension programs to offer at the Small Farms Academy this year, I immediately thought about a plant disease ID workshop for vegetable crops. These classes are offered at the Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center (SVAEC), so I could use the crops grown in open field, greenhouses and high tunnels to teach growers to be plant disease detectives. Since my background is in plant pathology, I came with this idea: ‘What can be better than talking about plant diseases for an entire day?’.   Well, it surely seemed like a promising idea back in February, but as the time went by I realized that I chose to do this hands-on workshop on one of the driest years in Florida’s history. The drought has been so bad that wildfires have been an issue and burn bans are active in about 42 out of 67 counties in Florida.

Many biotic plant diseases develop under warm temperatures and high moisture conditions (which is Florida about 90% of the time). However, this Spring has been so dry that there are almost no diseases to talk about. This is good news for growers who were able to produce clean crops, but it was ruining my plans to have them learn about scouting and recognizing diseases directly in the field and greenhouses. I was not ready to let go on this workshop so with more planning and a lot of help, we were going to turn things around. The UF/IFAS Plant Diagnostic Center (PDC), faculty and students from the Plant Pathology Department, and the Nematode Assay Lab came to the rescue.

Plant samples infected with a number of plant diseases or plant parasitic nematodes were available the day of the class. With the help of the microscopes provided by the PDC, growers were able to have a closer look at some of the typical enemies they battle on their own crops. Not only did they see them microscopically, but we were lucky enough to find a few diseases in our tours around SVAEC. Scouting and observing the symptoms and pathogens, allowed the attendees to make the connection between environment, causal agents and disease development. My colleague, Jim DeValerio, wrapped up the workshop with an overview on plant disease management, so now we have a few more plant experts walking among us.

After the workshop, 23% of the attendees were extremely confident in applying what they learned into their own farm, 29% were extremely confident in improving plant management approaches to plant diseases and, 47% were extremely confident in locating additional information on plant disease and nematode diagnosis. With such satisfactory results, I am now 100% confident I want to work on offering this workshop again.

Acknowledgments: SVAEC’s Small Farms Academy Team, Nematode Assay Lab, Plant Pathology Department: Dufault, Jones, Rollins and Polston’s Labs, UF/IFAS Plant Diagnostic Center, Seminis, Jim DeValerio and Maria Velez-Climent.

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