A University of Florida researcher plans to use a $500,000 federal grant to study ways to make peanuts more drought tolerant.

Diane Rowland, an associate professor of agronomy and faculty member in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, won the four-year grant in November from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In the research, Rowland will use a process called primed acclimation, in which she waters peanuts at 60 to 70 percent of their normal irrigation rate ─ what’s called moderate drought stress ─ before the crop begins producing peanuts. This prepares the plant for less water when the weather dries up.

She likens the process to training a non-athlete for competition.

“If you don’t condition your plants early, they tend to be less hardy,” Rowland said.

When summer arrives, she said, a primed plant is better able to tolerate drought.

A study Rowland and other scientists published in October 2012 also studied crop acclimation but looked at only one peanut variety. In the new research study, Rowland said she hopes to acclimate up to half a dozen varieties to drought conditions.

Peanuts are grown in a regional swath through the U.S., extending from the Virginia-Carolinas area, through the southeast and southwest, including large portions of Florida. For the last decade, those areas have experienced more frequent droughts.

Maintaining sustainable crop production despite limited water has become “the single most important challenge in the U.S. agricultural industry and worldwide,” she wrote in her grant application.

Rowland will conduct the research in west Texas and at the Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, also part of IFAS.