Nontraditional crops taking root in state

Juan Giuliani, scientist at the University of Florida, prepares a camera for research of the Arabica coffee plants growing at the University of Florida / IFAS Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra.

The coffee beans used for your cup of joe soon may come from Florida. So could the vanilla syrup you might use to flavor it. And even though olive oil is made mostly from Italian or Spanish olives and beer is flavored with Pacific Northwest hops, Florida farmers — including some in the tri-county area — have successfully harvested olives and hops. University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) continues working to turn less traditional crops into realities for Florida farmers. Each new crop they explore aims to add another viable product to Florida’s nearly $150 billion agriculture industry. UF/IFAS scientists recently touted research taking place to grow coffee plants, traditionally grown in Central and South America, with a team working on experimental plots in Marion County.

“Coffee is a crop of global interest that is already facing major challenges due to climate change,” said Diane Rowland, chair of the UF/IFAS agronomy department. “At present, the world knows very little about coffee plant roots, their architectures and their function under climate change conditions. The roots are key points in this process.”

Scientists also are working on growing vanilla, another crop mostly grown in tropical regions, as well as indigo for dyes used in denim production.

And their research helped crops like hops and olives become viable alternative crops for former citrus growers who couldn’t make money selling oranges when the citrus greening disease plagued their groves.

Emerging Crops Grown Close to Villagers

Less than an hour north of Spanish Springs lies the UF/IFAS Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra. This sprawling facility that includes both experimental fields and greenhouses is where researchers are growing coffee.

They’re growing the plants in the greenhouse as well as on the field.

It’s not typical of UF/IFAS researchers to grow crops both ways, Rowland said. But because coffee is such a novel crop to scientists, they want to understand how well it grows and how it responds to both a controlled climate and a field setting.

“The main thing is cold protection,” she said.

So far, the coffee plants grew for more than one year. Some plants in the greenhouse were mature enough to have deep red berries, also known as coffee cherries because they look like cherries.

The pits inside the berries, better known as coffee beans for their resemblance to beans, are what’s used to brew the coffee people drink to start their mornings.

A few plants were transplanted from pots in the greenhouse to a field setting around the end of February, Rowland said.

Her team is also working on installing plastic tubes with tiny cameras inside that will take pictures of the plants’ root systems from under the ground.

The tubes look small above the ground, but they’re actually 6 feet long. A 5-foot drill was needed to install the tubes.

Rowland worked with engineering students to integrate artificial intelligence to process the imaging data collected by the cameras. The AI project was supported through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’re going to collect a lot of imagery to understand the root system,” said Alina Zare, director of UF’s Machine Learning and Sensing Lab. “Without AI, (analyzing the data) would be slow, even infeasible.”

The coffee project is not Rowland’s first time working with alternative crops.

She also led a team that worked on growing sesame in Florida. They aimed to explore whether the crop grown for its edible seeds would be a viable alternative crop.

Her research suggested sesame would be successful here because of its drought tolerance, pest resistance and ability to attract pollinators. She also thought it may be beneficial for growers in North Florida, where crop options are more limited because of cold weather.

Alternative Crops Continue Forward Move Locally

Researchers’ there’s-nothing-we-can’t-do attitude extends to other novel and emerging crops.

As UF/IFAS continues research, other varieties seen as nontraditional in the past are expanding their footprint in Florida.

These include hops and olives, crops that researchers evaluated in the previous decade to see whether they could be suitable alternative crops.

Some citrus growers who abandoned their orange groves because of damage from citrus greening, an incurable bacterial infection caused by a tiny insect, tried growing hops and olives where their oranges once stood.

They’re still growing here.

The Florida Olive Council, University of Florida researchers and several Florida olive farms are researching whether olives can be a sustainable crop for former citrus growers looking for alternative crops. One farmer, Richard Williams of DeLeon Springs, received financial support for his olive farm from his citrus growing in-laws.

Michael Garcia, of the Florida Olive Council, said he’s monitoring a research plot in Wauchula where 40 varieties of olives, suited for Middle Eastern and North African climates, are now in their third year on graft. He’s also rooting 28 varieties on another plot in St. Augustine.

He said geneticists at UF are continuing work on gene editing to develop low-chill varieties of olives that are better suited to Florida’s climate than the ones that exist now.

“Our current Northern Florida research suggests Koroneiki is very successful this year,” Garcia said. Koroneiki is an olive cultivar from Greece noted for its high yields.

Hop yards are also taking the place of citrus groves.

In Dade City, synonymous with kumquats, Leonard Gude tried his hand at growing hops to fill a vacant area where citrus once stood.

“This is all very new and experimental in terms of what can be done,” he said. “I know a few people who jumped into it and spent a lot of money getting into it and did not have very much success with it. We’re going into it slow and methodically so we don’t spend a lot of money and have little results.”

Closer to The Villages, Sebastien Lajeunesse and Keith Brown of St. Johns Hops in Umatilla are growing hops on former orange groves. With the help of a nonprofit group, they’re looking to clear 2 acres of dead orange trees and put in more hops in their place.

“The craft-brewing industry is rising and here to stay,” Lajeunesse said. “So the brewers need hops.”

Indigo, Vanilla Interest Researchers

In South Florida, UF/IFAS scientists spent two years working on field trials growing indigo plants, which produce a natural blue dye that gives blue jeans their color. The trials recently concluded.

Over the years, demand for the plant fell as jeans were produced with synthetic dyes, according to UF/IFAS. But today there’s more demand for the natural indigo dyes, which prompted the field trials.

Researchers found indigo has a short production cycle, which makes it a cost-effective crop for farmers, said Wagner Vendrame, an environmental horticulture professor who led the field trials at the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead.

It also requires little water and fertilizer when compared to other crops, he said.

“With our results, it seems we now have confirmation that indigo is suitable for South Florida,” Vendrame said. “We know the plant grows well and is a good performer. I think the next steps are to move forward with a more targeted breeding program to develop cultivars specific for the state.”

South Florida researchers also experimented with whether a tropical vanilla plant species could grow here. While there are several types of vanilla plants, not all of them can grow the long, fleshy pods better known as vanilla beans that are used to make vanilla flavoring.

More than 80% of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar, according to UF/IFAS. The U.S. is the biggest importer of vanilla, which is the world’s most popular flavoring and second most valuable spice, after saffron.

Scientists at the Tropical Research and Education Center are working on sequencing the genetic properties of vanilla plants. Their goal is to identify a variety that grows an abundance of vanilla beans, grows efficiently and sustainably, and tastes good to consumers.

“While South Florida’s climate is ideal for growing the highly expensive and sought-after vanilla bean, it takes the right cultivar to make it grow successfully and quickly without compromising taste, disease resistance and yield,” said Alan Chambers, the UF plant geneticist leading the vanilla research.

Consumer Demand Key to Success

Like any crop researchers need to become more familiar with, establishing the crops depend on if consumers will like and take interest in them.

As for the coffee plants, Rowland doesn’t expect what’s growing now to yield good quality fruit and thinks future research will be necessary to cultivate new varieties of coffee plants that can better handle Florida’s climate.

But the research happening now will determine whether growing coffee here is possible and something Florida growers can achieve success with, she said.

“Florida has the most diverse agriculture systems in the U.S.,” Rowland said. “Diversification is good not only from the standpoint of the land, but also economics.”

If successful, Chris Wilson, an assistant professor with the UF/IFAS agronomy department, thinks Florida could have a small-scale specialty coffee industry built around locally grown coffee plants.

California has such an industry, and “there’s no reason we can’t do it here,” Wilson said.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.