Jason Garcia portrait

Jason Garcia

An interview with Jason Garcia, Florida Regional Manager and Agronomist

By Jael Batty

Flooded fields and ongoing rain in Florida have put a damper on strawberry fumigation and pre-plant preparation. In August and September, strawberry growers are normally fumigating and laying plastic in preparation for the upcoming strawberry season. This year, they’re not. Strawberry growers in Florida are underwater right now in terms of their soil saturation. Our advice to strawberry farmers: don’t fumigate and don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

As of September 5, 2019, growers in the Plant City area were 16 inches above the normal rainfall for the entire year. Not only has the excess moisture delayed fieldwork, but it wreaks havoc on the soil where strawberries will soon be planted. Strawberry farmers are dealing with the following frustrations:

  • Over-saturation damages soil structure.
  • Wet soils restrict the mobility of farm equipment.
  • Heavy farm equipment on wet soil exacerbates soil compaction.
  • Excess moisture leaches and dilutes soluble chemicals.
  • Over-saturated soils stress strawberry plants.
  • Stressed strawberries are susceptible to disease and pests.

As delays continue, it becomes increasingly tempting to make up that lost time as soon as possible, even while soils are far too wet. And that would be an enormous mistake.

In a recent email to local farmers, University of Florida IFAS professor emeritus Dr. Joe Noling explains the risks associated with fumigating over-saturated soils. (Download the email here.)

  • Excessive soil moisture decreases the stability of fumigants, which may dissolve and degrade so that they are ineffective.
  • Fumigants leach into the soil profile of saturated fields.
  • There are no studies that show how long it takes fumigant to off-gas in wet soil. This means that there is no way to know how long fumigants remain tied-up in moist soils.
  • Fumigants that don’t off-gas in the expected time frame are hazardous to field hands and transplants.

In the following interview with Florida Regional Manager and Agronomist Jason Garcia, we address these concerns and set your mind at ease: we have a solution.

How has the rainfall affected the pre-planting process? 

A few farmers have been able to get into the field to lay plastic ahead of Hurricane Dorian—which means some have already fumigated. But with it being so wet right now, many cannot get into the field. My advice is, “If you can get into the field to lay plastic, great. But don’t apply fumigant.”

What are the risks?

Farmers risk throwing their money away on fumigation right now. First off, saturated soils are going to increase disease pressure and nematode pressure. Secondly, fumigants are going to dissolve and degrade in this high moisture to the point that they won’t be effective against disease and nematodes.

My main concern is that we don’t know how long the gas will stay tied up in the soil. Normally, when we put a fumigant out we have a waiting period of 15–30 days while that fumigant is gassing out before it’s safe to get back to work in the field. In an ideal situation, we know that when the parts per million (ppm) are below 5 ppm, we’re able to get back out there and it’s safe.

But we don’t know what to expect from fumigation when the soils are this wet. As Dr. Noling mentioned, past experience has shown us that fumigants can remain tied up in saturated soils for extended periods. We don’t know how long that gas is going to stay tied up in the soil. We have no way of knowing if that waiting period should be 45 days or 60 days.

Can you test the ppm and know whether or not the fumigant is still in the soil? 

We can go out and test when we have optimal conditions and optimal weather. But it’s not standard practice to test even under optimal conditions, and even if it were, you can’t get an accurate reading in saturated soil. Because degradation occurs when soil dries out, we still have no way of knowing how much has gassed off and how much has leached down into the soil profile where it’s still relevant.

There are safety issues for farmers returning to the fields. With fumigation, if we go out into the field before it’s safe, that fumigant will kill a grower in a heartbeat. And it doesn’t just affect the workers, it affects the transplants. If the ppm is too high when we put plants in the ground, we’ve just killed our crop. Fumigant doesn’t take long to act. If that fumigant is still tied up in the soil when we put our plants in, those plants will be dead in two days.

So, there’s a huge concern for damaging plants. And when we’re dealing with the strawberry crop, it’s bad enough when we run into diseases and have to reset. It costs the grower money. We order back in June so a grower who has to reset is going to have to beg, borrow, and steal to get enough new plants for a crop. Growers who proceed not knowing what to expect may be dealing with serious consequences. Growers can put themselves in a bad way and really have a bad season.

What can we do to help?

Huma Gro‘s fumigant replacement is going to be the best option: Promax® and Zap®. Promax is an OMRI-approved organic biopesticide that growers can use throughout the growing season. So, we put the Promax out, which takes care of soil disease and nematodes. And 7 days later, we put the Zap out, and that’s going to build up the microbial population that Promax affected.

When we rotate those products, we’re taking care of the soil pathogens and nematodes and then we’re building the soil biology back up. We’re going to programmatically destroy and rebuild throughout the season: Promax, Zap, Promax, Zap, Promax, Zap.

What makes Promax and Zap different from fumigants and conventional pesticides? 

Fumigants and conventional pesticides generally treat one issue or another. They’re not good at treating for disease and nematodes both. But Promax will do that.

Promax is effective. Charcoal Rot, which we’ve been seeing again recently, will kill a field within a couple of weeks of putting plants in the ground. Most farmers believe there’s nothing they can do. But Promax will treat Charcoal Rot.

Like we discussed in the podcast, once we have our plants in the ground and we notice a problem, we’ve actually had that problem for a couple of weeks. Farmers shouldn’t think there’s nothing we can do. We have the answer. Promax is going to relieve disease stress. It’s going to deal with nematode stress. Zap is going to build up that soil.

Let’s talk about the fact that Promax is an organic pesticide that we’re shooting through the drip. Not only are we going to be able to use it throughout the growing season, but we can use it up to and even on the day of harvest. There’s no residue. There’s no buffer zone. There’s no waiting period to get back into the field. We can apply Promax while we have workers in the field.

We’re not going to be damaging the environment. It’s not hazardous to your neighbors. When we’re getting ready to fumigate, as soon as the pigs (fumigation tractors) are going down the road, our neighbors are putting up yard signs. That’s an added headache for the farmer. Growers don’t want to upset the community.

With our fumigation replacement program, there isn’t going to be any of that. Promax and Zap are beneficial to the environment. So, we’ll be protecting the plants. We’ll be helping the soil. Our strawberries are going to be free of pesticide residue. Best of all, we won’t be poisoning our neighbors. That’s a win-win all around.

How much does the fumigant replacement program cost? 

If you look at it from the grower’s standpoint, it’s about $1,000/acre for fumigation. On the field trial we did with Fancy Farms, we broke down the numbers and our fumigation replacement program is right around $400/acre for the entire season. At the end of the season, we’re already paying for our plastic, our plants, and our drip tape for the next season. We have to pay for all that upfront. So, we’re spending $25,000/acre before we even have a plant in the ground. Then we’re paying for conventional fumigation when it’s dropped off.

With Promax and Zap, a grower is able to space out his crop protection program, which he doesn’t have to pay for up front. At the end of the season, it’s less than half the cost of fumigation. That farmer is going to be putting that $600/acre into his pocket right off the bat. Not only is it a great return on investment, but it works.

How are Promax and Zap affected by soil saturation? 

In saturated soils, we’re not going to experience the dilution and degradation with Promax and Zap that we see with conventional fumigants. It’s unlike fumigation—which we use prior to planting and which, even in a good season, loses effectiveness. We can use Promax and Zap throughout the growing season. Additionally, Promax treats both nematode pressure and disease pressure. There is no other product like that.

How is Promax applied?

We’re going to get the most effectiveness from Promax by shooting it through the drip 7 days prior to planting and then coming in with Zap to build up that soil biology and stimulate the roots at planting. So, we’re going to get that plant off to a good start.

What advice do we have for growers who have already fumigated?

The dice have already been rolled. I can’t say whether that gas is still tied up in the soil. We’re going to have to weigh the risk against the reward when we consider the right time to put plants in the ground. If it’s too soon, we’re going to have to reset. In the event we get a successful crop started, Promax and Zap are going to be our go-to. If we start to see disease or nematodes, we can take care of that with Promax. If we are just having a problem with soil bacteria, we can clean that up with Zap.

We discussed root dip at transplant in our podcast. Is that still recommended in wet soils?

Yes. Growers should absolutely be using a root dip before transplanting in wet soil. Saturated soil increases the risk of plant stress, disease, and pests. On top of that, plants are going to have a difficult time taking up any kind of nutrients in those wet soils. When we have ground that’s saturated, the plants are only going to take up so much nutrient. Because of that, I strongly recommend a mix of Promax, Vitol®, and Breakout® to give that transplant the nutrients it needs. This gives the plant the ability to thrive and to meet its potential.

Even under optimal weather conditions, strawberry farmers should be using a root dip to treat any diseases coming from the nurseries. Whether we choose a fumigation replacement program or we’ve already fumigated, we should be using a root dip that includes Promax to reduce the risk of bringing in disease. We should also add Breakout and Vitol in the root dip because, by the time we received these plants, we’ve already missed our window of opportunity to stimulate bud initiation. Breakout is not only going to stimulate root growth, it’s going to help with flower-set. Vitol is going to help with fruit-sizing.

How is a root dip with Promax, Breakout, and Vitol better than one with conventional products?

Unlike conventional products that have a 3-hour shelf-life, our products are good in the root dip all day long. Conventional products shut down 3 hours after they’re mixed and then we wonder why one block is struggling and others look good when we’ve used the same root dip on all the plants. It’s because when we dip plants more than 3 hours after mixing products, we’re basically just dipping in water.

This means we’ve wasted money on the conventional product in the dip. We’ve just planted transplants that may be diseased. On top of that, we haven’t helped that plant deal with environmental stresses and we’ve missed the chance to stimulate root growth, flowering, and fruit set. So, we haven’t helped the plant at all.

We’re not going to lose efficacy with our products. Promax, Vitol, and Breakout will last all day.

While we’re discussing Vitol, let’s talk a bit about how Vitol helps plants recover from stress in water-saturated fields. 

Vitol is a growth manager that helps the plant produce hormones that it needs. But more importantly, Vitol plays a key role in helping the plant deal with the stress created by water-logged soils. Strawberry is a plant that doesn’t like its feet wet. Vitol is going to help strawberry plants recover from the stressful saturated situation until the soil dries out. Normally, we have a live-in period of about 7–10 days during which we run overhead irrigation onto new transplants to regulate soil temperatures while that plant is establishing roots. During the heat of the day, soil temperatures can get up to 110° even with the rain. This year, as wet as our soils are, we may not be able to use overhead irrigation during the live-in period. So, Vitol is going to be vital to strawberry farmers this year because it’s going to stimulate that plant to establish roots and it’s going to enable it to come through that environmental stress.

What is your best advice for strawberry growers dealing with saturated soils?

Don’t fumigate and don’t worry. Don’t worry about water-stressed strawberry plants because Vitol is going to help. Don’t worry and don’t panic about not using a fumigant because we have the solution, and that’s Promax/Zap.

Contact Huma Gro now to start your fumigant replacement program.

About the Author

Larry Cooper

Director, Sustainability & Knowledge Management, Huma, Inc. Lifelong learner, master gardener, rescuer of greyhounds, grandpa. Once served detention for placing ecology flag on top of his high school.

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