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UF Doctorate Candidate Becoming Protected Agriculture Expert

Ricardo Lesmes-Vesga left his native village in the Colombian Andes Mountains region to pursue higher education in protected agriculture and citrus advanced production systems. In only a few years, he will have achieved the highest degree education can offer.

Early in high school, Lesmes-Vesga decided to become an agricultural scientist. After graduation, he was accepted to the National University of Colombia, where he completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Agronomy Engineering. His senior project involved different concentrations of salt in irrigation water given to lettuce plants. His next step was to earn a Specialist in Company Management degree from the Free University of Colombia, where he designed and implemented a company improvement plan to introduce a competitive business strategy. His strategy involved protected agriculture.

Lesmes-Vesga’s first and second degrees prepared him well for the master’s degree program he chose to pursue at the University of Almería in Spain. Almería is situated in Andalusia and borders the Mediterranean Sea. The region was once a desert—crop production was untenable—until the mid-1970s, when local inventive entrepreneurs built the “The Sea of Plastic.”

“Almería is an important agricultural production region where more than 30,000 hectares of plastic greenhouses stand on what was once a desert on the sea,” said Lesmes-Vesga. “Water main resources are from underground springs and managed with different technological alternatives to preserve water, such as drip irrigation, hydroponics and other methods.”

Lesmes-Vesga worked evaluating alternative substrates for soilless crop production in Almería. He found Almería’s greenhouses to be unique to that region only. “The first greenhouse designs were based on vine arbor structures, or plastic panels supported by a network of metal wires, sandwiched plastic with nets of wires,” he said.

“Because of the growers’ constant innovations, they have reached one of the world’s highest economic yield for crop production,” said Lesmes-Vesga.

He said most of the fruit and vegetables exported to Europe during the winter are produced in Almería. The region’s export markets now include Russia and China. A new commodity for the plastic greenhouse farmers are perennial fruits, like Japanese medlar.

His work to earn a Master of Science degree in Protected Crop Plant Production with the University of Almería involved drainage quality and growth parameters for strawberry plants. Upon completion, Lesmes-Vesga said he wanted to learn how to protect citrus produced in the world’s premier grapefruit production region. He sought a doctorate program in Florida to study under an innovative scientist with expertise in citrus. An internet search introduced him to Rhuanito “Johnny” Ferrarezi, who earned his doctorate at a university in Brazil’s São Paulo State, one of the world’s leading fresh orange production regions.

Today, Lesmes-Vesga is in pursuit of a doctorate at the UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce, Florida, where the world’s premier grapefruit is produced. The Center is part of the university’s statewide Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, UF’s fulfillment as a world-leading land-grant institution.

Ferrarezi is directing Lesmes-Vesga’s research. Their work involves a structure unique to Florida’s specific needs for citrus tree production: 14-feet high screenhouses fashioned with white mesh material mounted onto wooden poles and steel cable frames. The mesh excludes the Asian citrus psyllid, an invasive insect that carries Florida’s famous citrus industry’s most formidable enemy of all time—a bacterium causing huanglongbing, alias citrus greening.

Ferrarezi said the psyllid brought Florida’s citrus production down to about 50% of what it once was in its 1980s heyday. Lesmes-Vesga said protected agriculture systems must match the needs of specific production regions and niche markets. Florida’s protective screenhouses are different from any he saw in Colombia and Spain. Specific concerns for the screenhouses are canopy management and plant densities for the trees grown under the mesh structure.

“Here, we are working with irrigation management for citrus under protective screens, or CUPS,” said Lesmes-Vesga. “The research focuses on horticultural improvements. We are seeking to manage CUPS irrigation systems more efficiently, based on soil moisture sensors.”

“We will determine how to make an advanced production system more profitable for Florida’s citrus growers,” said Lesmes-Vesga. “We can protect the citrus crops from the invasive Asian citrus psyllid and produce more yield in a small space.”

Lesmes-Vesga said fewer insecticides are needed because a physical barrier is present against the vector, the Asian citrus psyllid.

But, there are concerns about hurricane damage to the screenhouses. A hurricane caused damage to the four 1/4-acre screenhouses in which Ferrarezi and Lesmes-Vesga work, but they repaired the damage. The screenhouses are not as expensive to maintain or repair as are Colombia’s or Spain’s plastic greenhouses, Lesmes-Vesga said.

“Greenhouses and protected agriculture systems are different all over the world,” said Lesmes-Vesga. “I want to see highly efficient production systems, like protected agriculture, contextualized to the different regions all over the world.”

Lesmes-Vega said he would like to continue working in research after he completes a PhD. He plans to return to his native Colombia and improve agriculture with protected, advanced agricultural production systems, particularly with technology and hydroponics.

“Many technologies are not well known by Colombian producers,” he said. “I want to be a consultant and have my own enterprise using hydroponic systems.”

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