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Recent dry weather conditions have helped Florida's strawberries fend off a devastating fungus

(Thomas Iacobucci/WUSF Public Media)
Talia Blake
(Thomas Iacobucci/WUSF Public Media)

Currently, there's no cure for berries infected with leaf spot and fruit rot, but researchers are working on it: from experimenting with a spray to deciphering best crop management practices.

The past two years have been relatively dry in Florida. That hasn't been good for some parts of the environment, but it has worked out for strawberries, scientists say, because farmers are able to better regulate the amount of water crops get. Outbreaks of the fungal disease  Neopestalotiopsis, better known as leaf spot and fruit rot, had not been reported on Florida crops since the 1970s — until about four years ago, according to  Wael Elwakil, the fruit and vegetable commercial production extension agent for the University of Florida/IFAS in Hillsborough County. The disease can create small light brown spots on leaves. Then as the infection grows, spots expand to form necrotic lesions on the fruit. They eventually turn orange before getting covered in black fungal spores. The crop may be stunted or die off completely. Due to the warmth, rain and fog between 2018 and 2020, strawberries were hit hard by the fungus. "It can spread quite rapidly in the field and can just completely collapse your plant," said Elwakil. "Our growers got a big hit … basically just destroying our fruit, destroying our canopy." But then the weather dried out, leading to successful growing seasons last year and this year. Florida’s strawberry season, which runs from November to April, is now winding down. "We got really lucky the past couple years … The past two seasons were a little bit drier, which was favorable for our industry in terms of reduction of diseases," he said. Dry conditions allow growers to have control over how much water the strawberries get. The  Florida Public Radio Emergency Network has reported that the past few months have been exceedingly dry, even though the winter months are considered Florida’s dry season. Plus, the greater Tampa Bay region is one of the driest areas in the state. “Year to date rainfall departures from the Panhandle to interior South Florida range from about 2 inches below normal to up to 10 inches below normal,” said meteorologist Megan Borowski  in a recent weather update. “Scientists blame both below average rainfall and recent stretches of above average heat for the proliferation of the drought.” Florida is the second largest strawberry-producing state, with an estimated  $300 million-a-year impact on the state's economy. Currently, there's no cure for berries infected with leaf spot and fruit rot, but researchers are working on it: from experimenting with a spray to deciphering best crop management practices, according to Elwakil. “We're still not there yet, unfortunately,” he said.