Growing Forward with Dr. Tom Yeager

February 25, 2021

Tom Yeager spent his teenage years helping a neighbor with growing container plants. His inquisitive mind had many questions about why things were conducted a certain way and he often wondered if there was a better way to accomplish the task. After completing undergraduate studies, Tom was employed by a wholesale nursery. That was an opportunity to ground-truth some of his inquisitiveness that later culminated in a move to graduate school where the inquisitive hypotheses could be rigorously tested and new methods developed for growing plants. For example, while in graduate school, Tom and his advisor developed the Pour-through method of container nutrient extraction that is still used in the nursery industry.

After graduate studies, Tom joined the Department of Environmental Horticulture at University of Florida, IFAS with responsibility for conducting research and extension programs beneficial to the nursery industry. Embedded in what the industry was doing and listening to learn about the issues, research and extension education were conducted to help solve problems impacting plant production and move the industry forward. Many of the accomplishments are Best Management Practices (BMPs) used by the industry.

The industries’ commitment and use of BMPs provides a waiver of state imposed ground and surface water liabilities. Tom believes that research-based accomplishments like those that form the heart of BMPs happen because of others that help and support the cause. Lately, Tom and Jeff Million along with Craig Warner from UF’s Department of Astronomy have worked together to develop new irrigation management tools for the industry and extend the information from those developments via educational events.

They developed a web-based irrigation control system called CIRRIG (Container IRRIGation) that uses on-site weather and container leaching fraction as inputs. Leaching fraction can also be used as a standalone tool for determining the amount of irrigation to apply. To gain greater acceptance of leaching fraction as an irrigation monitoring tool they listened to input from those growing plants and realized the time involved to setup leaching fraction devices in the field and manually record results were burdensome even though leaching fraction is a BMP.

That was intriguing so an idea was proposed to and funded by the National Horticulture Foundation (NHF). It was proposed that instead of catching container drainage or leachate in a pan and measuring manually the amount of leachate; a mini tipping electronic rain gauge will be placed under a container to measure the drainage. That drainage information or amount will be transferred to a microprocessor that has Bluetooth capability and an app will be developed to monitor the amount of drainage or leaching on a mobile device. Thus, personnel growing plants can quickly determine the amount of leaching as they move about the field.

The information on the mobile device can then be used to establish the amount of time the irrigation system should be operated for the irrigation zone or plants where the information is collected. This will automate the process of conducting leaching fractions and provide a history needed for the future. A future where NHF made an idea a reality for Growing Forward!