As the official state fruit of Florida, the orange is also a major contributor to the state’s economy, along with other types of citrus. In a report from the Economic Impact Analysis Program, it was estimated that, based upon the latest available data from 2020-2021, the citrus industry contributed 6.94 billion dollars to the Florida economy, with production that included the equivalent of 53 million boxes of oranges.
With citrus production being so prevalent in the state, UF/IFAS researchers are working to identify ways to improve growing methods for better sustainability and better returns for growers. One such method is the use of cover crops, non-cash crops that are planted to cover the soil and improve its health.
Dr. Tara Wade, an assistant professor of Food and Resource Economics at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC) whose extension and research programs focus on conservation, says there are many benefits to both production and the environment to be had from cover crops, which are listed as a best management practice and available for payments in carbon markets.
“A lot of the benefits that come from cover crops depend on the soils you have, what issue you are trying to resolve, and the mix of cover crops you plant,” Wade said. “Some cover crops can help to improve soil health, e.g., legumes can increase nitrogen in the soil. There are cover crops that shade out weeds, attract beneficial insects, provide a buffer for runoff, reduce wind erosion, and hold moisture in the soil. But it really depends on your soils, climate, and your cover crop mix.”
As part of a CRDF project, Wade and her colleagues have recently published two studies looking at both the economic feasibility of cover crop adoption for citrus growers and the preferences and willingness of growers to incorporate cover crops into their production practices.
“If you want to promote a particular process, you need to understand how growers think and what they want,” Wade said. “It’s not enough to show that a practice works; you have to make sure you understand how choices are made in adoption if you want a practice to be widely used.”
In the first study, Wade and her fellow researchers conducted a survey of 79 citrus growers, with 59 from Florida and 20 from Texas.
In Florida, they found that about 40% of the growers they surveyed were already using cover crops in their citrus growing practices, with about half of Texas growers surveyed also already using cover crops. Most growers – 36% from Florida and 30% from Texas – ranked nutrient retention in soil as the most important benefit that cover crops would provide. Pest control was also considered an important benefit by Floridian growers.
To see whether the growers would want to adopt the technique, the survey measured willingness to pay and found that the average willingness to pay was quite high, ranging from $476.27/acre per year to $509.51/acre per year.
In addition to measuring stakeholders’ perception of cover crops and willingness to use them, it was also important to look at whether the costs and benefits of adopting cover crops would ultimately be financially beneficial to growers by looking at the short-term return on investment.
In the second study, Wade and her colleagues looked at two different types of citrus, Valencia oranges and non-Valencia oranges, and provided a cost analysis using historical data on cover crop prices, citrus crop yields, and average citrus prices.
With recent trends in yield and quality decreasing in both types of oranges, the researchers found that it would not currently be profitable in the short term to adopt cover crops as a practice for these growers. However, it would potentially be profitable for Valencia production if the yield were to increase to the levels of Valencia oranges being produced before Hurricane Irma.
With the benefits to soil and water health clear and a potential desire among citrus growers to adopt the practice, the next research step necessary, Wade said, is to find out the long-term return on investment for farmers using cover crops.
“What cover crops can do is improve soil health which creates healthier trees that require less inputs,” Wade said. “After several years, there may be higher yields.”