Scientists help watermelon growers nip disease in the bud

As people around the nation enjoy slices of cool watermelon this Memorial Day weekend, they can thank a dedicated network of Florida growers and UF scientists for ample supply and thus reasonable prices.

Florida is the top producer of watermelon in the country, and more than third of the state’s supply comes from the Suwannee Valley, where Bob Hochmuth is the assistant director of the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center’s regional campus. When signs of disease or pests emerge, Hochmuth and 11 other UF/IFAS Extension agents in the region activate an alert system, which informs growers and managers of approximately 50 watermelon farms about the potential threat and how to combat it.

The week of May 10, one such issue reared its head: Gummy stem blight, a fungal infection that affects the stems and leaves of watermelon plants, was found in several fields in the area.

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“When we have a potential outbreak of a disease, like gummy stem blight, we act fast to give growers the unbiased, science-based information on the disease and best practices for controlling it,” Hochmuth said.

The alert system is a combination of the core Extension principle of face-to-face outreach, and rapid, modern communication tools, growers say.

“The farmers of the Suwannee River Valley Tri-County area are tremendously lucky to have very willing and active county Extension agents that, through their collaborative efforts, work diligently to help us improve our farming practices,” said Laura Land of Jody Land Farms, a past president of the Florida Watermelon Association. “Currently they are very active with a weekly Tri-County area watermelon update sent out weekly in the form of text and email to all the growers in the Suwannee River Valley describing and diagnosing insects and diseases found throughout the week, helping the growers to have a proactive spray plan to combat the disease.”

In addition to disease and pest information, the weekly update includes the latest news about weeds, pollination, weather, irrigation, food safety, field days and ongoing research projects.

All these efforts help watermelon farmers better run their businesses, said Doyle Williams, president of Double-W Farms in Worthington Springs.

“The UF/IFAS team provides us information that is integral to us being able to successfully make our crop,” Williams said. “The weekly updates and farm visit are both important to us being as efficient as possible.”

Over the past several years, support from the Florida Watermelon Association has been critical to strengthening the network of Extension and industry professionals, Hochmuth said. For example, the association has recently supported the publication of a new pocket-size field guide that can be used on the farm to identify diseases, pests and other issues.

“In all my years with Extension—40 years—I’ve never been so deeply involved in network like this,” Hochmuth said. “It’s been really rewarding to be a part of.” 

For more information, see the UF/IFAS blog.

Small watermelon growing on vine

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