Reducing water use in ornamental plant production earns top distinction

Professor of Horticulture Tom Fernandez leads a research team investigating water quality and water management issues.

Tom Fernandez, middle.
MSU Professor Tom Fernandez (middle) with graduate student Damon Abdi (left) and MSU Professor Emeritus Ron Perry.

When Tom Fernandez was a graduate student pursuing his doctoral degree at Michigan State University (MSU), his academic adviser Ron Perry was working on a large multistate research project (NC-140) focused on improving tree fruit production and sustainability through changes in rootstocks.

Perry would bring Fernandez along with him to informational meetings all over the U.S. Those researcher-grower gatherings gave Fernandez an opportunity to meet some of the biggest names in horticulture, providing him a definite leg up.

“By the time I finished my Ph.D., I knew a lot of people working in fruit production across the country,” Fernandez said. “It was extremely good for my professional development. Most of my peers didn’t have a mechanism like that to meet so many people in academia or the industry.”

Today, some 22 years later, Fernandez – now an MSU professor of horticulture – is spearheading his own multistate research project, NC-1186, through the same group – the Experiment Station Committee on Organization and Policy (ESCOP).

Fernandez is focused on improving water quality and water management in ornamental crop production – an industry nearly 100 percent reliant on irrigation. He’s experiencing firsthand the benefits of this type of cross-country research collaboration from a development perspective.

“It’s been very good for everybody’s growth, not just junior faculty starting out – but mine as well,” he said. “Since our meetings vary across the country in large ornamental plant production states, we’ve taken advantage of the group’s expertise to hold grower seminars in conjunction with our project meetings. We’ve done that in Michigan, North Carolina and next year, in northern California. We also get to visit the best growers in these regions and learn from their successes and develop research to help solve their problems.”

The overarching intent is to provide a mechanism for scientists interested in water quality and water management issues to team up, work together and specifically create research projects around the main topic area.

Since launching in 2011, the group consists of 31 members from 22 institutions and has garnered over $21.5 million in grants. The project has been so successful that it was named the 2017 winner of the Experiment Station Section Excellence in Multistate Research Award.

Coincidentally, that honor comes just two years after Perry earned the same ESCOP award for the rootstock research he introduced to Fernandez at the start of his career.

Perry served 20 years as a technical representative in NC-140 for Michigan and since 2012, as the administrative adviser for the North Central Research Association. Both projects have been extremely impactful on each of the respective industries – fruit production and ornamental plants.

“I think these two elite awards speak to MSU’s ability to really and truly cross-collaborate, not only within our university but with other academic institutions as well,” said Doug Buhler, director of MSU’s experiment stations now called MSU AgBioResearch. “This doesn’t happen everywhere and we’re proud to see our researchers paving the way as leaders of such impactful multidisciplinary work.”

Perry said Fernandez was one of his brightest, most focused and resourceful graduate students. Fernandez administered Perry’s MSU Fruit Schools, and he joined him at the NC-140 annual meetings and collaborated with one of the regional project cooperators as a part of explaining the essence of rootstock differences when it came to water uptake physiological stress.

The duo also worked with Dave Ferree from Ohio State University on a similar trial, attempting to quantify root mass distribution in two locations to associate with rootstock genetics as affected by soil characteristic differences. He published the results for this work and other research related to his Ph.D.

“Tom, in essence, cut his teeth in learning about the value of multistate research projects as he took advantage of the organizational set up even for his Ph.D. research project in 1991,” said Perry.

Getting the project started

The concept for the multistate water management project was Fernandez’s. After pitching it to Buhler and receiving his support, Fernandez headed to see John Lea-Cox at the University of Maryland. Lea-Cox was onboard and suddenly Fernandez had the sponsorship of two experiment stations in different states – a requirement of ESCOP projects.

Another is to address an issue that one station is not capable of doing on its own. Water conservation and water quality are high national priorities within agriculture, particularly in the ornamental plant industry where nearly all of greenhouses and about 75 percent of nurseries are dependent on irrigation.

Fernandez contacted people across the country working on water management issues in horticulture and asked them to join the project. Various teams are addressing numerous topics, including:

  • Strategies for managing anticipated decreasing availability and quality of water for irrigation use in the green industries.
  • Investigation of water conservation methods and improved nutrient management practices to reduce the amount of water used and reduce or remediate production impacts on runoff water quality.
  • Safe reuse of water in production or return of water to the surrounding water systems with respect to agrichemicals, abiotic and biotic factors, substrate and nutrient management, and environmental, economic and social issues.
  • Urban environmental situations that can degrade water resources and development of appropriate management strategies to mitigate them.

Fernandez works primarily with nurseries – outdoor operations with limited protection from the elements. Nurseries typically grow larger plants than greenhouses do and use more water.

While water use varies from operation to operation, Fernandez said a rough industry estimate from the 1990s is 13,500–20,250 gallons per acre per day for container production. And, in general, the reuse of water is typically more common west of the Mississippi River.

“Recycled water is more often used in the western states because they have issues on water quantity, but it’s becoming more common in the eastern U.S. because there is more competition for water,” he said. “It used to be fairly easy to irrigate – you’d either put in a well or tap a river. Now resources are dwindling and the population is growing. Populations and nurseries are competing because they’re in geographic proximity, and in that competition – people will always win.”

Many nurseries, however, are starting to incorporate recycled water into their production systems. A process that isn’t without its risks. This is where Fernandez comes in. He and his team are looking at the implications, if any, of incorporating inferior water sources, including recycled water, into nursery operations.

Specifically, they are looking at:

  • The amount of recycled nutrients and their impact on plant growth.
  • Phytotoxic pesticides and whether they’re being recycled and cross-contaminating crops.
  • Nutrients and pesticides in released water.

One of their early successes was getting the United States Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative (USDA SCRI) grant “Clean WateR3 – Reduce, Remediate and Recycle,” which is led by Clemson University.

They are examining ways to reduce the amount of water used in the first place thereby reducing runoff and the amounts of contaminants in the runoff. He is also looking at ways to reduce the amounts of phytotoxic compounds so that when it’s applied it doesn’t have a negative outcome on the plant or the planet in the event it’s not recycled.

Bert Cregg, who like Fernandez is also in the Department of Horticulture, is capturing the runoff water and reapplying it to the crops to see if there are adverse outcomes. The Clean WateR3 group has 86 members.

Both NC-1186 and WateR3 have been incorporating grower meetings into their annual conferences and look forward to informing growers in northern California next year. Other team members have developed grower tools for smart phones, a wireless irrigation control system and methods to reduce pathogen impacts in irrigation reservoirs.

Switching career gears

Fernandez has three degrees, all in horticulture. He started his career in fruit production but early on transitioned into ornamental plants. His grandparents owned an ornamental greenhouse in Florida where he worked while growing up. They started it in the mid ‘70s after his grandmother’s green thumb evolved into a full-fledged business concept.

“Like a lot of people that got into the industry back in that era, they really liked growing plants,” he said. “My grandmother grew orchids as a hobby. She had a rather large greenhouse for a homeowner, but she decided she wanted to do that as a business. They bought about 5 acres and started a small operation, probably 10,000–15,000 square feet before they retired.”

With master’s and doctoral degrees, both in plant physiology, Fernandez’s first faculty position was working with nursery crops. With the dozens of different species grown on even a small nursery, he decided he needed to expand his expertise beyond working with specific crops.

“I shifted from looking at crops to looking at systems and to me, the most important dynamic system was the water system,” Fernandez explained. “We started looking at how to remediate pesticides in runoff water. I came at it trying to use ornamental plants in production as remediation plants.”

Others were looking at modified wetlands and constructed wetlands to remediate pesticides but Fernandez had a desire to keep land in production and not shift it into nonproduction. At the time, however, there was not a lot of funding available for ornamental production. Analyzing pesticides was extremely costly so they couldn’t do a lot.

“Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs) and the Horticulture Research Institute (HRI) have been instrumental in keeping us moving forward to be competitive for the SCRI program,” said Fernandez.

With GREEEN and HRI they ended up looking at the effects of various levels of pesticides on plants and what they could tolerate based on what was expected to occur in runoff.

“We also looked at ways to reduce runoff and nutrients in runoff by improving irrigation management. “Fortunately, SCRI grants came along and we got the WateR3 grant, and we can afford to analyze pesticides,” he said. “We’ve gone from just looking at what plants can tolerate in terms of pesticides to how we can reduce and remediate the amount of pesticides in the runoff water.”

Reduce. Remediate. Recycle

Recently Fernandez, along with NC-1186 members Cregg and Bridget Behe, also in the Department of Horticulture, have shifted away from using plants to remediate pesticides in favor of two-stage bioreactors – using woodchips, a common bioreactor method, as the first stage.

When water passes through, microorganisms in the woodchips denitrify nitrates and remediate pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency limits the amounts of nitrates that can be consumed in drinking water.

Nitrates also contribute to algal blooms and other toxic effects that occur in waterways. The second stage uses calcined shale, a shale that has been heat-treated until it expands, almost like popcorn. The calcined shale is expected to adsorb phosphorous, which also contributes to the algal blooms in waterways, and should also help in the remediation of pesticides from the water.

Fernandez is looking at irrigation practices, with the goals of reducing the amount of water and reducing the amount of runoff. Nurseries typically use overhead irrigation for smaller pots, but the team is looking at individual pot irrigators, such as spray stakes or drippers, as an alternative.

Since all of the irrigation is applied only to the pot, pesticides and fertilizers that land on the groundcover won’t be transported by irrigation water. Only rain events will transport them into the runoff stream.

In the interim between rainfall, several processes occur that degrade or reduce the movement of pesticides and nutrients. They plan to pass the runoff water through the bioreactors to further reduce the nutrients and pesticides.

Cregg will compare the growth and physiological responses of the plants irrigated with unremediated water, remediated water and those irrigated by typical sources. Behe will gauge how consumers respond to using recycled water labels in the ornamental plant industry. So far, she has discovered that consumers don’t really understand what it means.

“She’s found that consumers have a slightly negative perception of recycled water when used in plant production,” Fernandez said. “We see this as an opportunity for us to educate consumers.”

Fernandez views this entire project as an ongoing learning experience and that the multistate aspect has really helped bolster its impact now and into the future.

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