Paul LaFreniere envisions high value niche crops and fish in his plans for agricultural entrepreneurship. He says the key to sustainable food production is for growers to understand plant pathology.
A Jupiter native and University of Florida undergraduate, LaFreniere got a summer job at the UF Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce as part of the 2018 Florida Agricultural Experiment Station Undergraduate Summer Internship sponsored by the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Dean for Research. The position fit into a niche of time during a short break in LaFreniere’s studies. He applied for the program to gain more work experience and a fuller breadth of knowledge he wants to prepare for a startup organic farm.
“For my summer job, I learned how important plant pathology is because diseases have such an impact on whether or not growers make a profit,” said LaFreniere.
LaFreniere is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Organic Crop Production at UF in Gainesville. His fall semester has just begun. A member of the UF Sustainable Agriculture Club, LaFreniere will continue in his role as farm manager for the group’s agricultural production plot.
LaFreniere’s interest in agricultural education began at Jupiter High School where he participated in Mr. Crum’s Agriculture Program. Crum taught the students how important Florida’s growing capacity is because of the yearlong growing climate. Food can be grown in Florida while the rest of the nation endures long winter freezes.
After high school, LaFreniere began his higher education tenure at Palm Beach State College, where his performance in business courses revealed his standout accounting abilities. His advisors pressed him to pursue a business degree and to become an accountant. But, finance was just not what LaFreniere wanted to do with his future. He liked to work outside.
To pursue a career that would put him in the fields or near waterways, LaFreniere enrolled in aquaculture courses at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce. His interest in aquaculture evoked time he spent as a youth fishing waterways and beaches in northern Palm Beach County.
“Jupiter is overfished now,” said LaFreniere. “Aquaculture operations in Florida could help with this issue. I would like to get some things done to help food production in the area.”
Alongside his studies in commercial fish production, LaFreniere worked at a Vero Beach entrepreneurship called Mycotea, LLC. The owners work in a sterile warehouse and grow liquid cultures of mycelia, the root-like structures of fungi (mushrooms), from Petri dishes. Once grown out, the mycelia are transferred to large drums inside of the warehouse. The mycelia look like a white fuzzy cloud growing in the water. Once produced to a marketable size, quantity, and chemical composition, the mycelia are sold to health foods stores and vendors. Mycelia are used to manage health problems like diabetes and chronic pain, said LaFreniere.
“I want to use the mycelia on Florida crops like blueberries to see if it can take care of the fungal diseases the crops keep getting,” said LaFreniere. “I want to try it this fall in the UF student agricultural experiment plot.”
LaFreniere is interested in many different aspects of Florida agriculture and believes growers need to work more closely together to resolve plant diseases. He believes intense collaboration will bring about the advancement the industry needs to manage crop production. LaFreniere said research, economics, plant pathology, plant nutrition, fish aquaculture systems, and marketing are each equally important, and the growers need to know about each aspect.
SUMMER INTERNSHIP AT IRREC
This summer, LaFreniere worked the UF/IFAS sponsored internship full time, under Dr. Rhuanito “Johnny’ Ferrarezi, a citrus horticulture scientist known for his low-cost irrigation technology and 14-foot-high citrus screen house research projects. Along with Ferrarezi, LaFreniere created a model for citrus crop yield based on plant density and tree size. Ferrarezi and LaFreniere measured tree growth data. The scientist and his understudy then analyzed the data and compared it to actual yield for fruit produced in an experimental grove.
“We used the data we collected and compared it to actual yield,” said LaFreniere. “If growers had a modeling platform they would be able to calculate how much fruit each harvest will bring and gain a better understanding of planting density and which varieties to plant in different regions of Florida.”
LaFreniere redesigned forms to better calculate a simulated yield that correlates to different scion, root-stock, fertilizer, irrigation, and other input variables. To carry out the work he used figures from earlier yields. Data included tree measurement, scion and rootstock combinations, fertilizer amounts, irrigation, tree spacing, and patterns of trees per acre.
Apart from building the economic model, LaFreniere said he saw the negative impact a disease called citrus greening has had on the state’s signature citrus crop. Ferrarezi is growing citrus in screenhouses called CUPS, or citrus under protective screening, to protect the fruit trees from an invasive insect, the Asian citrus psyllid. The psyllid carries the citrus greening pathogen to the trees.
Now in his third year of undergraduate work, LaFreniere has zoomed in on a career mission. His plan is to operate an organic exotic tropical fruit farm and pair it with research of fungal and bacterial plant infections. An aquaculture operation is planned alongside the fruit production.
“I want to do the aquaculture phase at the same time and use the waste water to irrigate crops and pasture for livestock,” he said.
LaFreniere’s mission is to grow high value produce in a region where humidity produces some of the most persistent fungi in the world–and to control the fungi.
“Fungal and bacterial infections are Florida’s biggest problems in agriculture,” said LaFreniere. “Insects carry pathogens but, the problems are with how the fungi grow and cover food.”
LaFreniere has found marketing opportunities for both the produce he wants to grow, and for a specific fungus—the mycelia from mushrooms. He notes that all mushrooms have mycelia, and that mushrooms are fruiting bodies for reproductive purposes.
Lychees, longans, mangos and dragon fruit are imported from the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America. His business plan includes all of these exotic fruits at a location somewhere west of Jupiter. The region is the best place in the country to grow mangoes because it never freezes, but gets cold enough for flower bud initiation, said LaFreniere..
“If we grow the same fruit that we import, the fruit grown in Florida will be better quality and the costs will not be as high as the imported fruit,” said LaFreniere.
LaFreniere’s business strategy to manage the fungi involves a higher degree-maybe a master’s, probably a doctorate–in plant pathology. Research is needed to handle Florida’s ubiquitous fungi on crops issue, he said.
“My classmates who started MycoTea are using the root structure of mushrooms and have created a liquid culture,” said LaFreniere. “Cordyceps is a type of fungus, used to make mycelia. I wonder if they could infect the psyllids.”
Mushrooms are fungi. The Cordyceps fungi are carnivorous and colonize living creatures in the same way that a parasitoid would inhabit an insect for natural biological control. Mycelia have antibacterial properties and have been used to kill E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, said LaFreniere.
“Growers need to become more active in research,” said LaFreniere. “Research will help to resolve all of the diseases affecting Florida crops.”
Throughout LaFreniere’s academic work, internships and jobs, his network of Florida growers and scientists has grown.
Networking is a robust tool more growers need to share. Growers can approach university research professors together to look into the problems they face in their fields. And, growers could fund and conduct their own research if they had the training and background, said LaFreniere.
“Growers throughout Florida deal with the same diseases on the same crops,” LaFreniere said.