California might be the king of growing lettuce in the U.S. for most of the year, but Florida does rule the roost for lettuce crop production during the winter months. Up to 73% of U.S. lettuce comes from producers in the Golden State and is distributed nationwide through extensive retail chains. Lettuce grown in Florida accounts for only about 3% of the national total. University of Florida researchers are looking to get a bigger piece of the pie for local growers.
Traditionally, Florida lettuce has been grown between October and April in the rich muck soils of the Everglades Agricultural Area, just south of Lake Okeechobee. Recent advances in technology and changes in consumer preferences have seen the Florida lettuce industry expand into emerging production systems, with at least 240 operations occurring in controlled environments such as greenhouse hydroponic systems.
Researchers with the UF/IFAS Lettuce Breeding Program are working to help growers deliver high-quality lettuce when growing in these systems. Professor Germán Sandoya and Ph.D. candidate Jesse Murray are leading that research.
“Consumers in growing urban areas such as Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville may increasingly become attracted to vegetables produced near their ‘backyard’, which might be purchased in fresher conditions that maintain the appearance and nutritional value,” Murray says.
“Our goal is to provide traditional and new types of lettuce varieties better adapted to the unique conditions across the state of Florida,” Sandoya adds.
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Some important issues they’re working on improving are tolerance to hotter temperatures as well as maintaining postharvest storage quality and nutritional content.
“During the last few decades, the Florida lettuce season has been constricted by about a month due to increased temperatures at the beginning and end of the winter growing season,” Sandoya says. “Lettuce is a cool-season crop and may develop physical defects when grown in heat such as tip burn and bolting, making the crop unmarketable. It is also important to understand which lettuce varieties can store better after harvest, and what practices should be implemented to help reduce food waste in these newer growing systems.”
A selection of lettuce varieties and breeding materials are being evaluated for characteristics desired by the lettuce industry in hydroponic greenhouse and sandy soils, such as good yield and absence of heat-related defects when grown under ideal winter and warmer temperatures of early fall and late spring.
Results from this study might help the lettuce industry identify best management practices, and inform lettuce breeders how to develop improved cultivars, for growing lettuce in different systems in Florida.
Anyone interested in learning more about Florida lettuce production can visit Lettucebreedinglab.weebly.com.