This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Vero Beach Research Center, a prolific incubator of transformative crop protection technologies.
Researching tomorrow’s technology for today’s crops is a time-honored tradition at the Vero Beach Research Center (VBRC), where dedicated Syngenta scientists have been unlocking the potential of plants since 1963.
“We not only believe in bringing plant potential to life, we live it,” says Jorge Cisneros, Ph.D., research and development manager at VBRC. “For 50 years, the Vero Beach facility has supported this goal, making us a key research center both in the United States and abroad.”
Syngenta invests more than $1 billion each year in research worldwide, including at VBRC. The facility has earned a reputation for combining the latest technologies with practical, hands-on field testing. Florida’s 12-month growing season allows scientists at the 240-acre center to generate multiple seasons of field data per year for a wide range of crops, including sugar cane, corn, soybeans, cotton, small-grain cereals, citrus, vegetables, and turf and ornamentals.
The region’s subtropical climate, high rainfall and sandy soils also provide ideal conditions for testing compounds for potential use as fungicides, herbicides, nematicides and insecticides. “The weather here is conducive to high pest pressure, which is critical for successful trials,” says Paul Kuhn, Ph.D., senior group leader for the disease control team at VBRC. In addition to its trial-friendly climate, VBRC also boasts several other unique advantages:
The VBRC is one of the few locations within Syngenta worldwide where researchers can conduct studies in the lab, growth chambers, greenhouses and the field at the same time to fully characterize new products and determine how they will perform in commercial applications, Kuhn says. Finding these answers as quickly as possible is important, since CropLife America estimates that a new crop protection product can take 10 years and up to $256 million in development costs to advance from discovery to use in a grower’s fields. VBRC researchers help identify the best new products for growers to use under diverse crop, pest and weather conditions. They also conduct the extensive research required by government regulatory agencies to ensure that new products will be effective for crop producers, as well as safe for people, wildlife and the environment.
Through the years, VBRC scientists have played major roles in the development of key Syngenta brands and technologies. The center is involved in the critical early-stage testing of chemical and biological compounds, including investigating modes of action, identifying their spectrums of activity, determining optimal use rates, and screening for crop safety and environmental impact. “Almost every herbicide that has been registered through Syngenta has come through our facility,” says Cheryl Dunne, group leader for the weed control team at the VBRC. These products include Halex® GT herbicide and other Callisto Plant Technology® brands, as well as the Touchdown® brands and Dual Magnum® herbicides. Scientists at the center also have helped develop a number of disease-fighting products, such as Revus® and Inspire® fungicides and Maxim® Quattro seed-applied fungicide. In addition, VBRC scientists have evaluated the efficacy of many insecticides, including Warrior II with Zeon Technology®, Fulfill® and Actara®.
“We help put tools for pest management into growers’ hands,” says Clark Lovelady, group leader for the insect control team at the VBRC. “We’ve accomplished this by providing quality data and unique observations about the behavior of these compounds through lab assays, greenhouse trials and field studies.”
VBRC scientists go even further to answer questions and fine-tune products once Syngenta introduces them commercially. “We also collaborate with our sales force, retailers and growers to investigate unexpected outcomes and product issues, and we answer their questions quickly,” says Dunne, who has worked at the center since 1988. In addition, the scientists focus on water quality to enhance product efficacy, she adds. “We evaluate herbicide efficacy dependencies on water pH and mineral ion content, for example, so we know what water conditioners growers should use to help our products work efficiently.”
While Syngenta researchers conduct many tests on site, they also collaborate with university researchers across the country. Mike Owen, Ph.D., an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach weed specialist, appreciates the center’s focus on herbicide resistance management. “VBRC researchers’ collaboration with university researchers is instrumental in moving the discussion forward,” he says. “We can help educate growers through the university system, but we don’t have the leverage to facilitate changes in their behavior. Syngenta can help growers address resistance issues, directing them to diversify their approaches to weed management.”
The stability and low turnover of VBRC’s staff is also a plus, says Jim Graham, Ph.D., a professor of soil microbiology at the University of Florida. He appreciates the VBRC team’s assistance with sampling citrus groves for Phytophthora propagules, based on a protocol developed at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center to estimate fibrous root damage caused by the fungus. “I’ve worked with colleagues who have been at VBRC for a number of years and have formed working relationships that are valuable to our research program as well as to the Florida citrus industry.”
VBRC values its role as a responsible corporate citizen, from its favorable impact on the local economy to its charitable contributions and involvement in the community. “Not everything at VBRC focuses on research,” Cisneros says. “We provide training to colleagues, give tours to visitors, hold workshops and enjoy contributing to our community, from serving as science fair judges at the local school district to providing Christmas gifts to needy children in the area.”
VBRC researchers’ shared philosophy of continuous improvement is another key to success. “With our specialists’ years of experience and wide-ranging areas of expertise, we’ve been able to find an incredible synergy through diversity,” Cisneros says. “Our team believes that world-class science holds the power to find solutions to feed a growing global population and make a positive difference in the world.”