Some of the houses at EREC show the effects of decades of soil subsidence. Subsidence occurs when the soil in the Glades (called “muck”) breaks down into its carbons and becomes shallower. / J.D. Vivian

Editor’s note: This is the re-posting of the second story that Florida Food & Farm ran last year about the April 6, 2017, open house at EREC. The event is held in odd-numbered years.

Few would equate agriculture with the cell-phone. But Gregg Nuessly did just that at the Everglades Research and Education Center’s (EREC) 2017 open house.

Gregg Nuessly / Contributed

The director of EREC, on County Road 880 in Belle Glade, held up his cell-phone and told some 200 people attending, “If we look at the value of science, we need look no further than this.”

The theme of the April 6 event was “The Value of Science.” EREC is part of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Nuessly, who also is a professor of entomology, then expounded on the challenges that he and his fellow professors and staff members at EREC face. “Agriculture and science are not static. So we need to look at new and evolving ways to solve problems.”

That’s because, unfortunately, the diseases and pests that plague crops are ever-evolving and ever-changing, he explained. “Brown rust arrived in Florida in 1978 and caused problems with sugar cane. Orange rust arrived in 2007.”

The rusts are fungi that decrease sugar-cane yields in infected plants.

Innovation for EREC is crucial

As a result of the ever-changing threats, EREC staffers are kept busy developing new and creative ways to fight them. Then he provided an example.

EREC has helped to install hundreds of barn-owl boxes throughout the Everglades Agricultural Area, better known as “the Glades.” Because the birds are highly effective hunters — and voracious eaters of crop pests — farmers don’t need to use as many rodenticides to control rats, voles and other critters.

The roughly 400 pairs of barn owls in the Glades slowly began moving into the boxes and producing chicks. The program was succeeding. Then some other creatures — very aggressive ones, and dangerous to humans and livestock — took a shine to the ready-made “hives.”

“Africanized honeybees arrived around 2012 and started to take over the boxes,” Nuessly said.

Innovation to the rescue. “Swarm boxes” were developed. A lure inside each box attracts the bees. “Then we could remove the box and replace it with a new one,” Nuessly explained.

Glades Day School students (at left) and Glades Central High School students at EREC’s Subsidence Post. In 1924, the 9-foot concrete post was driven down to bedrock. Since then, 6 feet of soil has been lost, though the subsidence rate is far lower than years ago due to use of “best management practices.” / J.D. Vivian

“United Nations of agriculture”

EREC’s faculty, staff and other researchers are diverse. “We’re like the ‘United Nations of agriculture’ around here,” he continued. “Students come from all over the world.”

And their collective fight — to reduce the use of chemicals while increasing agricultural yields — will not end. “There’s always some new problem coming down the road,” Nuessly said. “We have one thing figured out, and then the problem changes.”

What did students learn?

Entomology Professor Ronald Cherry explained how stinkbugs harm rice. This is one of several varieties in the Glades. / Courtesy of Ronald Cherry

Here is what four Glades Day School students said about the open house. Twelve students and their Agriscience teacher, Kalyn Hartley, from the Belle Glade school attended the five-hour event.

Kennedy DesRochers, 10th grade: “I learned more about soil subsidence, which is a serious problem, especially here in our community where our lives depend so heavily upon agriculture. I think it’s important for everyone in our community to learn what’s going on with what really is the basis of our local economy. In Belle Glade, ‘Her soil is her fortune,’ so if we don’t protect it, what would Belle Glade become?”

Shane Mckenzie, 10th grade: “I really enjoyed learning what soil subsidence was and how it was affecting farming in Florida as well as in other states. Another interesting thing I learned is how stinkbugs affect rice fields and how different species of stinkbugs were brought to Florida through importing of goods.”

Jack Hillard, 10th grade: “I liked learning about the new varieties of corn that are being tested. I also liked learning about the weather programs for farmers to use.”

Kamryn Kennedy, 10th grade: “I really enjoyed learning about all the different experiments the University of Florida Research and Education Center has in progress right now. My favorite parts of the tour included the soil laboratory and the presentation of the barn owls.”