Matthew Machata grew up in Polk County on the family’s citrus farm, Rolling Meadows Ranch Groves in Lake Wales, Florida. After he graduated high school, he joined the Marine Corps and served two tours in Iraq. He then attended Auburn University, where he earned a degree in aerospace engineering. At the time, his plans didn’t include farming, but that changed after his grandfather Andrew Machata purchased farmland in Nebraska.
“When I was in school, I would spend summers working on the farm in Nebraska,” Machata says. “When I graduated, my plan was to pursue a career in aerospace, but I was asked to stay on at the farm in Nebraska. I enjoyed farming and the bigger picture of contributing back to the family farm.”
Eventually, the decision was made to start leasing the Nebraska farmland. At the same time, the citrus groves in Florida were in steep decline because of HLB.
“In 2016, my grandfather asked me to come back home to see if we could turn things around in the groves,” Machata says. “Yields had dropped down to around 100 boxes per acre, and we were operating at a loss.”
Machata made the move back to Florida and took a deep dive into learning more about citrus production. Machata’s bookshelf in his office is lined with literature he says helped in the educational process.
“I grew up around citrus and worked in my dad’s citrus nursery, so I know the labor aspects, but I didn’t really know the scientific side of things. I started reading and studying citrus and went deep into the soil sciences and HLB. Other growers helped me learn more. Scott Lambeth was a big help. I got the basics down and started building the program up from there.”
IT TAKES TIME
When Machata returned to the Florida farm, the citrus groves had just been aggressively hedged and topped to increase the roots-to-shoots ratio. Machata said it was a beneficial move for the new program he would be implementing. His program started with being out in the groves every day and observing what’s happening and responding accordingly.
“The trees will talk to you, and you just have to listen,” Machata says. “We started the program in 2016 and slowly built on it. From my research, I knew what we were doing made agronomic sense. We just had to give it time. You see some guys go out with some new product in every spray. I think that’s a mistake because you need to give something a couple of years to see the difference.”
The foundation of Machata’s program is keeping stress off HLB-infected citrus trees. That starts with a solid irrigation program. He utilizes soil moisture probes and weather stations to keep up with the grove’s daily fluctuations in water needs. “But nothing beats going out and digging to verify where the moisture is,” he says.
Machata typically runs his microjet irrigation on three-hour cycles every other day. In cooler periods, he reduces the cycle to two hours or two-and-a-half hours.
“When running continuous irrigation during dry periods, I try to have every microjet checked at least once every two weeks. I prioritize irrigation monitoring and maintenance over all other operations because drought stress is one of the quickest ways to contribute to reactive oxygen species (ROS) production,” Machata says. “And overproduction of ROS is what is damaging/killing HLB-infected trees. My entire program is built around reducing plant stress. My order of priorities for reducing stress are: 1) irrigation, 2) fertility, 3) pest management and 4) weed management.
NUTRITION AND SOIL HEALTH
Much of Machata’s study revolved around plant nutrition and soil health. His program differs a little from the current guidance that promotes spoon-feeding nutrients through frequent fertigation. He says because of irrigation pressure issues and potential nozzle plugs, dry fertilizer applications form the foundation of his approach, which is supplemented by foliar nutrition applications several times per year.
Machata applies five dry applications per year (see “Dry fertilizer schedule” sidebar). He modifies his fertilizer blend at the beginning of each year based on soil testing and nutritional trends. The dry blends also have the micronutrients needed to produce a good crop. Foliar applications supplement the dry program and are applied five to six times per season (see “Foliar application schedule” sidebar).
“When we apply fertilizer, we skip every other drive middle and adjust the throwers to reach the dripline on the opposite side of the tree,” Machata says. “Gypsum and lime applications meet my calcium needs and are made to every row to ensure uniformity since these applications are only made once per season.”
In the beginning, Machata was seeing the biggest deficiency in zinc, iron and manganese, so rates were kicked up on those elements until they hit the baseline level sought in soil testing.
“I aim to have my nitrogen derived from a third each of ammoniacal, nitrate and urea. The urea portion is protected by using ESN, which has a 90-day release. However, in Florida’s climate, this is closer to 60 days,” Machata says. “Fifty percent of the potassium is derived from potassium sulfate granular and potassium magnesium sulfate, with the remainder being muriate to reduce applied chlorine.
“I would eliminate the use of muriate altogether if it was economically feasible. The annual amount of dry fertilizer applied is 1,195 pounds per acre, which has an acidifying effect on soil pH with a calcium carbonate equivalence of -260 pounds per acre. This tells me I should be making lime applications at least every four years, but I rely on my soil tests to pull the trigger. I’ll tweak my fertilizer blend at the beginning of each year based on soil test trends. Historically, I have applied humic acid twice a year through the herbicide boom but have recently switched to a dry prill version, blended with my fertilizer mix, allowing for more pounds of humic per acre at a lower cost. The application is not as uniform as the liquid, but I think the additional poundage will prove to be more beneficial in the long run.”
The humic acid applications have helped improve cation exchange capacity (CEC) in the soil. The CEC tracks the ability of the soil to hold nutrients.
“When we first started tracking the CEC, tests were coming back in the low ones or even lower than one,” Machata says. “Since we started applying humic acid, we are seeing the CEC improve. Last year’s tests showed most everything is above one, some at 1.7 and 2.7. If you increase the CEC, it really is one of the best things you can do to improve the health of your grove.”
In addition to his fertilizer program, Machata is focusing on keeping the biosphere of the soil healthy and promoting biology and fungal networks. He plans to learn more and experiment with soil microbial products in the coming year. But he adds biology can be encouraged without the applications. Soil pH can play into this. Humic acid also feeds biology.
“Your soil is more fungal dominated by a pH below 6 and then more bacteria dominated above 6, so that is why I shoot for around 5.7,” he says. “We first focused on pH to be sure we were making micronutrients more available in the soil, but there are some immune-response benefits to keeping the right pH, too.”
Machata cautions growers to be mindful of pH when resetting trees. There is research that shows US-942 rootstock performs better at a higher pH of 6.5, while Swingle produces better at 6.0 or lower. “That is something you should consider if resetting US-942 in an existing grove on Swingle,” he says.
Machata’s program has paid off in the form of higher yields.
“On average, our production is hitting around 250 boxes per acre. But on our stronger mature blocks, we are hitting 400 to 500 boxes per acre,” Machata says. “Higher density helps yield. I think at 218 to 247 trees per acre, you can get some good yields out of that.”
In addition, Machata treated all his acres (except a 10-acre control) with the new trunk-injection therapy. Like others, he’s hopeful this will move production higher. But he adds that trunk injection will not work alone. It needs to be in conjunction with a solid production program like he’s developed over the years.