UF/IFAS Research Helps Fern Industry Survive In Florida

GAINESVILLE—Valentine bouquets are big business for the floral industry this time of year, with four out of every five bouquets featuring ferns from Florida, say researchers at the University of Florida.

But in recent years, Florida’s fern industry has struggled for survival because of inflation, disease, increasing government regulations, foreign competition, and the crop’s need for large amounts of water and nutrients.

So scientists at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have established a cooperative effort with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and St. Johns River Water Management District to develop ways to reduce operating costs for growing leatherleaf fern that will increase profits without decreasing production.

Leatherleaf fern production traditionally has included the use of large amounts of nutrients and water to ensure high yields of marketable fronds. However, such high inputs can be costly both in terms of production costs and effects on the environment, said Robert Stamps, a researcher and professor of cut foliage at the UF/IFAS Central Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka.

“The development of improved nutrient and irrigation management practices that reduce production costs and protect the environment will help both the industry and water resources,” Stamps said.

The leatherleaf fern is the staple of the cut foliage used by florists, with the fern business booming around the holidays, especially between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, said Bill Dellecker, executive vice president of FernTrust Inc. in Volusia County. In the past two weeks, the company has shipped out more than 10,000 boxes of cut ferns to its North American customers just for use at Valentine’s Day.

“Flowers are used and enjoyed year round, but the spring holidays are the peak time of the year,” Dellecker said. ” ‘Fern brightens flowers’ is the saying our fern growers association uses. It’s the filler, it’s the background without which the flower bouquet is missing something.”

The leatherleaf fern capital of the world, rural North Florida produces cut foliage on more than 10,000 acres of shade houses and naturally shaded oak tree hammocks where each fern leaf is picked by hand and shipped to wholesalers worldwide.

Leatherleaf fern is a $70-million-a-year wholesale industry and the most valuable ornamental crop produced in Florida. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. leatherleaf fern production is housed between Palatka, Clermont and Daytona Beach.

Stamps said research over the past five years has shown that commercially acceptable leatherleaf fern can be produced using much less fertilizer and water. Applying amounts of nitrogen less than half of what was previously used caused no reductions in yield or quality when combined with irrigation based on soil water content.

Growers could reduce their nitrogen fertilizer application rates by 50 percent with no reduction in crop yield or quality, which translates into a $180-per- acre annual savings on fertilizer costs alone, or more than $1 million industry wide, Stamps said.

“The potential savings due to the prevention of groundwater contamination are immense,” Stamps said. “Partly based on our research and with grower acceptance, the St. Johns water district has decreased the consumptive use water allocation for this crop by 42 percent.”

One of the largest agricultural marketing cooperatives in the fern industry, FernTrust provides for the harvesting, grading and marketing of ferns produced on more than 300 acres by North Central Florida growers. Dellicker said the UF/IFAS fern research is helping the more than 500 growers around the state reduce their demands for fertilizer, pesticide and water use.

“Florida’s fern industry has several issues to deal with, including environmental concerns, water use and offshore competition,” Dellecker said. “This research, which is helping to give Florida growers a competitive advantage, is critical for us to be able to produce a better, more efficient crop. Otherwise Florida wouldn’t have a viable industry today.”

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