Growers of one of Florida’s signature citrus crops may see more production and possibly less of the deadly citrus greening disease. Researchers have worked for four years growing grapefruit under protective screens on a 1-acre experimental plot at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), and they’re seeing encouraging results.
UF/IFAS scientists and a few commercial growers have used the system, known as citrus under protective screen (CUPS), for a few years. They’re trying to keep the dangerous Asian citrus psyllid away from citrus trees. Infected psyllids can transmit the deadly greening disease to citrus. So far, so good. They’re noticing higher grapefruit yields and no psyllids or greening.
Florida grapefruit production has been drastically reduced by citrus greening, also known as huanglongbing (HLB). In Florida, grapefruit production has gone down from 40.8 million boxes in 2003-2004 to 4.9 million boxes in 2018-2019, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Arnold Schumann, a UF/IFAS soil and water sciences professor, leads the CUPS experiment at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred, Florida.
And right now, he sees reason for optimism. Schumann is studying how well grapefruit grows in the 1.3-acre facility at the CREC.
Four years of data show grapefruit that exhibit no signs of greening, Schumann said. Researchers planted Ray Ruby grapefruit trees in August 2014. By December 2018, the trees had produced 2,100 boxes of grapefruit per acre, Schumann said. That’s 525 boxes per acre per year on average, but Schumann notes that trees are less productive in the initial two years after planting. In years three and four, the CUPS grapefruit yields were 797 and 892 boxes per acre, respectively. Currently, the average yield for Florida grapefruit is about 166 boxes per acre per year, according to the USDA.
“HLB reduces profits for fresh citrus producers in many ways,” Schumann said. “Production costs are higher due to increased needs to use pesticides and fertilizers, and fruit production is harmed by stunted tree growth, reduced fruit set and pre-harvest fruit drop, among other factors.”
The CUPS experiment at the CREC has demonstrated that nearly all those harmful effects of HLB can be addressed, Schumann said.
“During the past five years, we have learned much about optimizing horticultural practices and pest and disease management for red grapefruit grown in CUPS,” he said.
Scientists focus on producing high yields with premium grades for the fresh fruit market.
“Our understanding of fresh fruit quality has been honed by our partnership with the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, which harvested and shipped our CUPS grapefruits and tangerines for the past two seasons,” Schumann said “Most importantly, fruit grown in CUPS should all be ready to sell, and our grapefruit and tangerine harvests have achieved 100 percent pack-out. For grapefruits, the fruit size is very important because it greatly affects the selling price.”
One reason for the good yield is the grapefruit’s ability to adapt to the higher daytime temperatures under the protective covers, he said.
Other reasons for the increased production include:
- High-density planting
- A hydroponic system with trees growing in pots, instead of soil, and inducing early, large blooms.
- Drip fertigation — a combination of fertilizer and irrigation — applied several times per day
CUPS hydroponic grapefruit has all the important attributes for fresh fruit production: high yields of HLB-free fruit, large fruit size, consistent yields and early maturity, Schumann said.
“The experiments at the CREC focused on proving that the CUPS concept was viable,” Schumann said. “Trees were grown mostly in containers, using hydroponics and very high-planting densities.
A couple of Florida growers are using the CUPS method for grapefruit, although it’s too soon to know their results, Schumann said.
Scientists are not yet recommending the intensive production system used at the CREC experiment for commercial CUPS, although one grower in Hardee County is already experimenting with hydroponics and container-grown grapefruits, tangerines and navels under cover, Schumann said.
“Our aim is to maximize fruit production and quality in commercial CUPS with trees grown in the ground at moderately high-planting densities,” he said. “We want to document the most successful methods in a CUPS production guide and to update it as we learn more.”