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University of Florida research looks to cut growers’ water consumption for freeze protection

The freezes that damaged strawberry crops in 2010 may be a bad memory, but studies are continuing on how growers can best protect their crops in frigid conditions.

University of Florida Professor Michael Dukes recently completed a study on how crops could be protected with sprinklers that use a lower volume of water and better technology during freezes. Growers commonly spray water on the crops to protect them from damaging temperatures.

Dukes’ research showed that growers could use lower-pressure sprinklers and automated systems to turn on sprinklers according to the dew point, not the air temperature. He said the dew point is a more accurate way to judge when farmers need to start their protective irrigation.

Dukes said there hasn’t been a hard freeze since he started his research so work needs to continue to see how low volume sprinklers and the updated technology would work during very low temperatures.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Dukes, who works for the university’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, often called IFAS.

Dukes’ study is being paid for by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The district started funding studies after the 2010 freezes, when farmers pumped an estimated 1 billion gallons of water a day to protect their crops during 11 days of freezing weather in January. The pumping led to about 140 sinkholes and 700 complaints of wells that went dry, at least temporarily.

Water management district staff hydrologist Gio Ijpkemeule said beside the research, her agency also has helped growers pay for projects that would reduce water consumption in a freeze. Experiments have included spraying foam on the berry plants and a tent-like structure over them, she said.

The water management district doesn’t want a repeat of 2010 when water consumption causes problems, she said.

“A big freeze might happen next year,” she said. “It’s best to take precautions now.”

Most of the nation’s winter strawberries are grown on about 11,000 acres in Plant City-Dover.