Nov 1, 2022
Florida Tomato Institute grapples with pests

Despite some low crop years, Florida tomato growers are returning to normal production. A continuing concern, however, is protecting the crop from pests.

At the Florida Tomato Institute on Sept. 7 in LaBelle, Florida, growers heard from researchers and Extension scientists from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), who presented information on protecting crops from emerging pests.

In his annual State of the Industry talk, Michael Schadler, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Committee and senior vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, described strengths of the industry and challenges facing tomato growers.

Production in 2021 increased 15% across the board, noteworthy because 2021 was the first time in the last five years Florida tomato production increased. 

“We hope to be at a new baseline where we can bounce off the bottom where we are and start to grow again, and grow profitably,” Schadler said.

While tomato growers experienced high inflation on input costs, tomato prices dropped. Prices averaged $9.54 a box in 2021, down 20% from the previous season and down 50% than two years ago. 

Two decades of consolidation among growers and packers have left a smaller grower base.

“This is actually a strength because those growers and packers that remain, they are the survivors,” Schadler said. “Most importantly, they are committed to this industry and to the continued viability and success of this industry. We’re not going anywhere.

“We have a few challenges, but we are here for the long haul,” he said.” We are still the biggest tomato-growing state in the country.”  

Nematode threat

Researchers from UF’s Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC), in Wimauma, Florida, and UF’s Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC), Immokalee, Florida, updated growers on new pest and disease threats.

Johan Desaeger, associate professor of entomology and nematology at UF/IFAS GCREC, said guava root knot and stubby root nematodes, which attack many crops, are becoming highly prolific in Florida tomato fields. 

Nematodes enter a plants’ root systems, causing severe galling, even more severe than other pests.

“They have high damage potential,” Desaeger said. “Nematode-resistant tomatoes won’t protect against this species. The root knot nematodes are considered highly aggressive and highly damaging.”

Desaeger sampled tomato fields, including commercial vegetable farms, research centers and small community gardens in 10 south and central Florida counties. (The pest isn’t common in north Florida.) In the U.S., nematode distribution is limited to the tropics, and commonly found in Florida as well as coastal South Carolina and North Carolina.

Recently, the pest has become a big concern for North Carolina sweet potato growers and has been also discovered in Georgia.

In many fields, stubby root nematodes are becoming the most common nematode and are more prevalent than the root knot nematode, Desaeger said. There is some concern the pest may be related to yellow top symptoms some growers are seeing at the end of the season, when plantings are heavy with fruit. 

Stinky bugs

Stink bugs, which can also cause severe damage, are becoming more problematic. Amanda Hodges, Extension scientist, entomologist and director of UF’s Doctor of Plant Medicine program, said the southern green stink bug, the most common one in Florida, the brown stink bug and the harlequin stink bug increased in numbers from 2019-22 in the six south and central Florida tomato fields she surveyed. 

“We are increasingly thinking it’s a confluence of stink bugs attacking tomatoes,” Hodges said. “Perhaps the introduction of the brown marmorated stink bug and seeing that one increasingly prevalent in the field have resulted in more apparent economic damage.” 

Hodges said she didn’t expect to discover the brown marmorated species in the counties she surveyed and is seeing it as the state’s third-most abundant variety of stink bugs.

The harlequin stink bug attacks crucifers more than tomatoes, but will attack tomatoes if cruciferous crops are absent, she said. 

Stink bugs remain active when field temperatures exceed 70 degrees, which is normal for Florida. Hodges said researchers are working to improve trapping and that much work needs to be done in terms of monitoring, improving trapping and expanding understanding of stink bug understanding.

Other researchers presented findings on gene editing, tomato cultivars, viruses, foliar diseases, whiteflies and other topics.

— Doug Ohlemeier

Top photo: Michael Schadler, head of the Florida Tomato Committee and tomato exchanges, gives his annual State of the Industry talk during the Florida Tomato Institute in LaBelle, Florida. Photos: Doug Ohlemeier.

Middle photo: University of Florida’s Chris Gunter (from left) and Steven Sargent talk with Florida Tomato Exchange’s Michael Schadler.

Bottom photo: Wesley Roan of Lipman Family Farms, and Tony Dimare, of DiMare Co., talk during the 2022 Florida Tomato Institute.

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