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Standing water from Tropical Storm Debby threatens Florida crops

Although farmers in Hernando County escaped Tropical Storm Debby without catastrophic losses, the biggest threat to crops is still to come:

Disease.

Farmers and agriculture experts expect to see a proliferation of plant-killing pathogens that thrive in flooded or extremely soggy conditions.

"There's a pathogen for every plant," said Stacy Strickland, director of the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service. "The one thing that makes them really bad is a lot of water."

Of most concern in Hernando are the blueberry plants, typically grown in more flood-prone, low-lying areas.

"After the floodwaters have gone and all the press is over, we're still going to be fighting some root-rot pathogens," Strickland said.

The rain has Spring Lake Blueberry Farm owner Ruth Davis worried.

"We're pretty swampy out here," Davis said. "We're looking at the possibility of fungus."

She said roughly 15 of the farm's 25 acres were affected.

"It's very concerning," she said. "We don't usually use fungicides, but we're probably going to make an application. That costs money, you know. The runoff isn't good, either."

Brooksville farmer David Frazier said the heavy rain hurt the quality of his crop of sweet corn.

"It's affected us big-time," Frazier said, noting that he's had about 40 inches of rain since he planted in early March.

The recent rains also forced him to pick by hand most of his crop.

In the short term, farmers didn't have major losses.

Most moved animals and equipment to higher ground. Although some animals had to be walked out of floodwaters, Strickland said he didn't hear of any livestock being lost.

"I haven't seen any cows floating four legs up," he said.

Blueberries aren't being picked at the time of year. So though the plants may be affected, no fruit was lost.

"Had it happened sooner, that might have been a different story," said Laura Langford, the county executive director with the Agriculture Department. "We would have had major losses."

The county's citrus groves are typically on higher ground, and they were not expected to face any significant storm-related problems, short-term or long-term.

It's impossible to tell how much damage Debby did to area agriculture until the water ebbs and officials can get out and take a look at any disease that develops. That will take a week or two, Strickland said.

He said he is in a holding pattern until then.

One of the primary pathogens of concern is Phytophthora, a type of water mold. The water mold's spores swim, like microscopic tadpoles, spreading rapidly. The wetter the ground, the faster they spread.

"We're certainly going to have an issue," he said, noting the mold had already started to show up before Debby, thanks to earlier heavy rains.

Strickland has spent the past few days looking at affected lands, trying to gauge the damage. Most of the flooding has been in low-lying areas that were prone to having water, he said.

The good news?

It's been drying out really fast.

"Maybe we'll be able to dodge a root-rot pathogen bullet," he said.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432.

Standing water from Tropical Storm Debby threatens Florida crops 06/30/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 30, 2012 12:58pm]
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