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As the only place within the contiguous United States to have a subtropical/tropical climate, South Florida’s unique Redland area has, unsurprisingly, become a hotspot for tropical fruit production. Working to further “sweeten” this deal through her research, is FIU Tropics PhD student Ariel Freidenreich.

Freidenreich’s work with the FIU Agroecology program aims to develop sustainable practices for fruit production that would ensure healthy soils while proving to be incredibly lucrative to farmers. At LNB Groves, a local multi-use organic farm, she is testing whether the use cover cropping will enhance the overall soil quality of a young carambola stand by encouraging healthy tree development without the addition of unnecessary inputs that are both expensive and toxic.

With guidance from FIU Agroecology co-directors Drs. Krishnaswamy Jayachandran and Mahadev Bhat, Freidenreich has intercropped the highly fertile, nitrogen-fixing legumes sunn hemp and velvet bean, with young carambola trees in a method known as cover cropping.

While cover crops don’t yield marketable products, they enhance soil in an organic, sustainable, and cost-effective way by providing nutrients, reducing the amount of fertilizer needed to grow crops, adding organic matter to soil, inducing crucial microbial activity, and even suppressing detrimental weeds and parasites. Having seldomly been tested for their use in tropical fruit production, Freidenreich’s project may lead the way to new sustainable solutions for common farming needs.

Her innovative research, however, is novel in more ways than one.

With the support of FIU Tropics funding, this project has been the first to use the FIU GIS Center’s red edge sensor drone to test for nitrogen content and overall plant health. Upon flying over her study area, the drone produces color maps of nitrogen content, revealing which plants are in better health.

Despite the buzz surrounding this new technology, the most exciting aspects of the project remain grounded in humanity. Reaching beyond the data points and state-of-the-art sensors that make this project exceptional from a scientific standpoint, Freidenreich will also survey local farmers to determine how they feel about these practices.

As she explains, one of her goals with this work is to bring farmers into the conversation.

“People care when you care about them,” begins Freidenreich. “I’m trying to involve the farmers in this to see why they do or do not like these practices and to see what I can do to help them. I’ve been attending tropical fruit grower forums and trying to talk to people. A lot of the farmers that have gotten my survey talk to me about it at the meetings. I want to make sure that my research means something to people. If you’re doing research and you’re not connecting with the people the research is for, then what’s the point?”

Freidenreich’s research is funded through United States Department of Agriculture- National Institute of Food and Agriculture- National Needs Fellowship and the FIU Tropics Research Grant.