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A Question and Answer with Dr. Rhuanito “Johnny” Ferrarezi as he departs UF/IFAS-IRREC

Dr. Rhuanito “Johnny” Ferrarezi reflects on his work as an assistant professor of citrus horticulture at UF/IFAS-IRREC. His appointment at IRREC commenced in 2016; Dr. Ferrarezi accepted a position as associate professor of controlled environment agriculture with the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. He begins his new role in mid-August. We thank Dr. Ferrarezi for his work to assist local citrus growers to sustain the industry amid the most serious citrus plant disease worldwide.

Q. What are your best accomplishments during your time with UF/IFAS-IRREC?

A: By doing research projects that mesh with the needs of local citrus growers. The IRREC Ferrarezi Citrus Horticulture Laboratory has been well-funded, and we met the needs growers have at this time. Some program highlights are:

• The Millennium Block, an large-scale variety performance trial with new citrus cultivars to determine which will tolerate Huanglongbing, or HLB, or citrus greening.
• Multi-Agency Coordination Grapefruit Variety Trials done at 24 experimental sites located in several collaborating growers’ groves.
• Nutritional trials to determine trees’ fertilizer needs in the HLB era.
• The Citrus Under Protective Screens, or CUPS, is an opportunity for us to keep producing fresh and healthy fruit without HLB. It is the only available solution that produces 100% healthy fruit during this time.

The Millennium Block became our lab’s signature program. After 15 years under HLB, we developed a way to address the industry’s need for HLB-tolerant material. Those answers will be forthcoming as the program continues following my departure. For the Millennium Block, we were glad to receive funding from several sources:

• The UF/IFAS Dean for Horticultural Sciences, who was Dr. Jackie Burns.
• Former IRREC Director Dr. Peter Stoffella funded the preparation of the block’s location.
• The Citrus Research and Development Foundation, whose leaders lead citrus research in our state.

The citrus industry is a part of Florida’s heritage. We see roofs growing in former citrus fields. The trend cannot continue. Citrus production lands must remain a part of the Florida landscape.

Q: Dr. Ferrarezi, many post-doctorates, visiting scientists, and scholars have joined your laboratory throughout the last five years—please elaborate:

A. Yes, and we have been most fortunate with their contributions. I did have four post-doctorates, eight visiting scholars, including people from Brazil, China, Honduras, Mexico, and Spain. I had a total of 10 graduate students, five of them I was their chair, and the other five, I was part of their graduate committee. I had over five years, 30 research assistants working with me on multiple field trials. I currently have 17 people working in my program, including all of these people–research assistants, post-doctorates, graduate students, visiting scholars, and one faculty member to assist with large field trials. My lab grew a lot over the years, and I must say that these people are in the best schools and companies worldwide doing their jobs as professionals and scientists. One of the visiting research scholars who came here, Dr. Fan, is now the Fujian Academy of Sciences Director in China, managing 50 people. Past post-doctorates have good jobs too. One is a faculty member in Brazil.

Dr. Arun Jani is a state scientist and agronomist in Oregon. So, they have moved forward with their careers. Former research assistants Megan Eckman and Taylor Meadows joined the USDA. I have enjoyed those who have visited the lab, and I still have great people at this time: An Operations Manager, Tom James; Research Assistants, or Post-doctorates, Dr. Waqar Shafqta, and Dr. Flavia Tabay Zambon; Agricultural Assistants Cristina Gill, Eduardo Esteves, Andreas Gonzales, Hernan Soto, Laura Castro, and Jacob Lange. We have two graduate students, Nues Alcon Bóu and Martin Zapien. Our agricultural assistants are Mac Hossain, Clarence King, Donald Davis, and Chris Hernandez, who work behind the scenes on projects. The growers don’t know all of them — but they are all awesome.

The possibility of growing the program was vital for our industry, but most importantly, to train the next generation of employees and scientists who will sustain the industry into the new century.

Q. Over the last five years in your work at UF/IFAS-IRREC, within the Ferrarezi Citrus Horticulture Laboratory, how did your views and mission transform?

A. I must say that the industry changed a lot during my time with UF/IFAS at IRREC. We still see the decline that I saw when I started my position with UF five years ago. But, as a result of the research UF/IFAS is doing, I think the industry became more hopeful. Even though the numbers are not good, still, growers are motivated to find a solution. Small growers are out of production. Production got consolidated to large growers, so basically, I have seen that small changes that we have made with fertilizer recommendations, better irrigation practices, and rootstock variety choice are leading growers to rely more on the data we generate. The data findings give producers confidence when they make decisions about their operations. And that’s a good trend because, with the reliable data we generate at my lab. The data findings give producers confidence when they make decisions about their operations. And that’s a good trend because with the reliable data we generated, all of that information will help growers to maintain themselves in business.

Q: What would you tell citrus growers and researchers as they move forward in their efforts to produce citrus in Florida?

A: Let us move forward with planting trees to evaluate them in our soils and climate. And under HLB. There is not much information about new varieties and we need to test trees to determine which will grow best under HLB, which will produce higher yields and taste better. The research will also show which varieties may not tolerate HLB. We should also continue with enhanced management practices to guarantee the delivery of proper care: water, nutrients— adequate care to the trees we have left. I recommend that citrus researchers continue to seek enhanced management practices so growers can still produce a good, high-quality crop. Now is not the time to abandon the crop. We can continue to maintain the grapefruit industry as the signature crop of the Indian River District.

That way, we can produce a quality crop. Now is not the time to abandon the industry. Now is the time to make decisions based on the data we have available and contribute more to the body of data. With an increasing body of data, growers will be in a position to leverage their ability to maintain the citrus industry at this level, to sustain a way of life they cherish, and to continue the Indian River District’s legacy for the best grapefruit in the world. We cannot let that go because the brand has been developed over a century and is unsurpassed worldwide. Scientists are hard at work to sustain the industry, and funding organizations are committed to continuing their research support.

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