Robert Hochmuth remembers about 30 years ago when researchers with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Suwanee Valley Agricultural Extension Center showed watermelon growers how to use transplants instead of direct seeding. UF/IFAS Extension agents encouraged growers to use plastic mulch instead of bare ground planting, and to switch from overhead to drip irrigation.
"We wanted to help them adopt best management practices that would decrease the use of water, fertilizer and fuel," said Hochmuth, UF/IFAS Extension center director and regional specialized agent. "In the end, they have not only seen their crop yields increase, but have also helped the environment and reduced the use of resources."
Over the past 30 years, virtually all Suwannee Valley watermelon growers‚Äîabout 40‚Äîhave reduced the use of water, fuel and fertilizer, and improved efficiency by switching to best management practices introduced by UF/IFAS Extension agents, Hochmuth said.
"Nearly one-third of all Florida watermelons are grown in the Suwannee Valley," said Kevin Athearn, regional specialized agent and co-leader of the watermelon industry study. "So, we wanted to help growers improve the way they grow produce and increase their market share. While most growers started experimenting with plastic much during the 1990s, all had fully transitioned by 2000."
The results have been astounding.
Growers who participated in a 2016 UF/IFAS survey reported a 50 percent to 80 percent reduction in water use per acre, with the average being 67 percent, Hochmuth said. The growers are saving as much in fuel costs, and 15 percent to 30 percent reduction in applied nitrogen, he said.
Also, watermelon yields have increased dramatically over the time period with fewer natural resources, Athearn said. Growers said their yields per acre have increased from 25,000 to 40,000 pounds per acre in the early 1990s to 50,000 to 60,000 pounds per acre today, he said.
"This means that on the 6,000 acres of watermelons grown in the Suwannee Valley region, irrigation changes made by those growers alone have saved approximately 2 billion gallons of water per year," Hochmuth said. Athearn calculated the annual water savings achieved by Suwannee Valley watermelon growers to be equivalent to the annual amount of water used by about 65,000 Florida residents. "Fuel savings are about 120,000 gallons per year, and nitrogen savings are approximately 180,000 pounds per year."
The changes to best management practices by watermelon growers in Suwannee Valley mean that less nitrogen and less water leach into the ground, Hochmuth said. "This indicates a substantial reduction in potential negative impacts from watermelon production on the region's water quality and demonstrates the commitment of these growers to conserve Florida's natural resources," he said.
Jody Land, owner of Jody Land Farms in Branford, Florida, said he has seen a drastic change in his operation. "Years ago, we would use a stationary system and the ground would get over-soaked. That meant the fertilizer would leach into the ground and we would have to add more," Lundy said. "Thanks to the UF/IFAS best management practices, farming has come a long way. We can see the savings in money, fertilizer, water and time. The chain stores want a quality grown watermelon and now we can provide that."