Keeping FAST TRACK on the right track

Stakeholders in the fresh citrus industry will have a chance to offer their thoughts on the program that allows them to test new fruit varieties and market them on a fast track. The program, aptly called FAST TRACK, will hold an open forum Jan. 5 at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred to examine the program’s progress and determine how it’s working for participants.

FAST TRACK took form several years ago thanks to the efforts of UF/IFAS, Florida Foundation Seed Producers and the New Varieties Development & Management Corp., of which Peter Chaires serves as director.

“When we looked at the sheer volume of new variety material – what we call new selections – that was in traditional breeding programs, we saw that there were probably in excess of 20,000 unique plants being tested,” Chaires said. “There was a growing need within the industry to be able to trial, on a private level, new experimental selections much sooner than they might otherwise become available. We needed a model to basically empower the growers to do that – so FAST TRACK was developed.”

Traditional Florida breeding programs call for entities such as IFAS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study experimental plants for 15 to 20 years in replicated field trials, using all types of soil and other growing conditions. The scientists would then collect data so that whenever a variety was released, growers would have an extensive bank of data on which to base their decisions. “That is the perfect way to do it,” Chaires said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have that kind of time. Nor do we now.”

USDA and IFAS still collect data using traditional methods, but Chaires says that growers want to have their own personal experience. “It happens naturally. If you go by a coffee shop or breakfast restaurant in a growing area, you always see growers gathered around the table in the morning exchanging opinions and learning from each other. So this puts it in their hands where they can try the new varieties and share their opinions with their neighbors,” he said.

In FAST TRACK, growers decide what works for them, and then they can make recommendations as to what should become commercially available.

“Right now, growers get two advantages to participating. They get a lower royalty rate forever in return for their assistance with the program, and they get a five-year production head start,” Chaires said.

FAST TRACK is for UF/IFAS fresh selections only, but Chaires says there are other means of rapidly advancing USDA selections. “Also, Florida Foundation Seed Producers has a program for making IFAS oranges for processing and IFAS rootstocks available much earlier,” he said.

Growers who are interested in participating in FAST TRACK register and pay a nominal fee. They are then granted early access to the material they would have had to wait decades for under traditional circumstances.

The program consists of three tiers.

“Tier 1 is the trial stage where you’re planting a minimum of five trees and a maximum of 30. The fruit’s not for sale. It’s just to gain experience with it and try to determine whether it’s of any value,” said Chaires.

“Tier 2 is if anything goes commercial, meaning that people can grow and sell the fruit. The only people eligible to go to Tier 2 are the people who were in Tier 1. Tier 2 would go for five years and then after the expiration of the five years, it goes to Tier 3, which is when there is open, commercial availability to anyone else who would care to participate – at a higher royalty rate,” he continued.

However, some growers requested an even faster process. “So we put something in called the Early Option, which means ANY grower in the program could go to Tier 2 any time they want,” Chaires said. “They don’t have to move as a group. Some people like that, and some people don’t.”

With citrus greening disease threatening the industry, Chaires says it’s more important than ever to streamline FAST TRACK.

“That’s what we want to accomplish with the open forum. We want more people to be exposed to the program, and we want some assurance that it’s structured in a way that is a benefit to the industry and to the university. We know that not everyone will agree on everything, so all we can do is gather input, compile that and then those three entities that developed it will weigh the input and decide if it’s OK the way it is or whether there’s a need to tweak it.”

Chaires says that the program has a critical need for nursery input. “We need growers, packers AND nursery people.  The nurseries are a vital part of the process, and we really work hard to include them because they are front and center.  This is a complicated program for them. Nurseries are used to making 5,000 of one thing, such as 5,000 navels on a single root stock. This program means they have to make a little bit of this, a little bit of that … and try to have them all ready at the same time. It’s very complicated, so we especially need them to come to the table,” he said.

Growers, packers and nursery owners are encouraged to RSVP for the forum to Lucy Nieves via email (lucy.nieves@ffva.com) or via fax at 321-214-0223.

Contact Peter Chaires via email (pchaires@nvdmc.ort) or call 321-214-5214 with any questions about the program or the forum.

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