Scribbling away at Florida’s next big crop potential

Scientists start a new hops yard with the hope of creating a new Florida agricultural commodity

THE HUNT for the next great Florida agriculture success story is unfolding in Wimauma. The storybook ending the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences hopes to write is one in which our state becomes a major hops producer.

That would provide a local supply to match the explosive growth of the craft brewing industry. Along the way, it would create jobs, increase growers’ and brewers’ profits, and give residents of Hardee, Highlands, Hillsborough, and Polk counties a chance to drink local.

Like so many previous success stories, it starts with science. Specifically, this story will be set in a new hops yard that’s being created in the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. Our local protagonists are environmental horticulturalist Zhanao Deng and plant physiologist Shinsuke Agehara, who work at Gulf Coast REC. Environmental horticulturalist Brian Pearson will also contribute from our Mid-Florida REC in Apopka.

Deng may be best known for his work on developing sterile varieties of lantana. Homeowners love the plant, but it’s an invasive species that quickly spreads and can wreak havoc on other species in the neighborhood and beyond.

Deng’s work as a breeder is so respected that his lantana is also being tested in Africa for its potential to repel malariacarrying mosquitoes. He’s game to test it as a repellent to Zika-virus-carrying bugs as well if there’s a call for it.

Hillsborough County brewers import their hops all the way from Washington State and foreign countries because we can’t grow good hops in Florida — yet. The subtropical climate and local pests and diseases conspire against it.

It’s a heavy lift to overcome those obstacles. If it were easy, it would have been done years ago in tandem with the launch of Florida’s craft brewing industry. As Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

The hops project is an example of how UF/IFAS sometimes swings for the fences. That comes at a cost. You have to have the stomach for striking out. Again, Edison described the innovator’s predicament well when he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Deng and his collaborators will be taking a few hundred swings at once, thanks to local brewers’ donations of root bulbs and equipment. A hit, if it comes, won’t happen immediately.

But 20 years ago, a thriving Florida blueberry industry didn’t seem all that likely either. Our breeders changed that. Florida growers now produce more than $75 million worth of blueberries annually — more than 95 percent of it in UF/ IFAS-created varieties.

The hops experiments are also an example of how our research agenda is crafted with the input of the communities we serve. Simon Bollin, the Hillsborough County agribusiness development manager, helped identify the opportunity. There are about 20 breweries in Hillsborough County and more than 60 in the greater Tampa area.

The Hillsborough County Agriculture Economic Development Council quickly realized that the value-added production potential for local farmers from hops was promising, but the AEDC needed proof of concept. That is where the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast REC came in. It has a team of scientists that is essentially the discovery and innovation arm of agriculture throughout the area.

Bollin brought brewers and breeders together, and they decided hops were worth a try. Bollin arranged for the donations of plant material and equipment. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences is lending its support through a $158,000 grant.

We have high hopes for hops, just as we do for peaches, pomegranates, and olives. You just can’t know ahead of time which crop will become the next success story. We just know that UF/IFAS scientists are the likely authors of it, and right now they’re scribbling away in Hillsborough.


column by by JACK PAYNE
photos from UF/IFAS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Email and follow on Twitter @JackPayneIFAS.

Posted March 30, 2016

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