Written by: Emily Cabrera, UGA IPM Communications Coordinator

Expert/Source: Juan Carlos Díaz-Pérez, University of Georgia Horticulture Professor

Horticulture Professor Juan Carlos Díaz-Pérez (right) stands in the field with friend and mentor Sharad Phatak.
Horticulture Professor Juan Carlos Díaz-Pérez (right) stands in the field with late friend and mentor Sharad Phatak, who is regarded as a pioneer for sustainable agriculture (cover crops and conservation tillage) in south Georgia. Phatak, who was also a professor of horticulture at UGA-Tifton, received the Georgia Organics Land Steward Award in 2002.

For nearly three decades, Juan Carlos Díaz-Pérez has been contributing to the field of sustainable vegetable production, focusing on organic agriculture as a professor in the University of Georgia Department of Horticulture. This month, Georgia Organics is recognizing his work with the 2022 Land Steward Award.

The award recognizes an individual who has made “significant commitments to the tenets of organic agriculture, including soil fertility, biodiversity, on-farm recycling and water quality.”

Díaz-Pérez, a native of Mexico, studied agriculture and plant sciences at the University of Guadalajara and received his master’s and doctorate in plant physiology from the University of California, Davis. He worked as a professor in Mexico before joining UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in 1998.

UGA Tifton campus Professor Díaz-Pérez spoke with UGA integrated pest management communications coordinator Emily Cabrera about the award and his career.

What does winning this award mean to you?

The Land Steward Award was established by Georgia Organics to recognize someone who has made substantial contributions to the organic agricultural movement in Georgia, so I am very thankful that they thought of me.

I have enjoyed my collaborations and have learned so much from working with them, so I appreciate that they recognize my work.

How did you get into this line of research?

When I was in college, I used to read books and magazines on organic gardening and organic agriculture. I became interested in the connection between plants, the soil and the larger environment. Agriculture is what feeds us. The most basic thing we need as humans is food. To me, research is an invitation to be challenged; it’s continuous.

We just have to keep our eyes open to ascertain what nature is trying to tell us. To contribute to growing good food using sustainable methods was something I really wanted to do.

Your research interests are vast — how would you define your work? 

I work on different production systems, from conventional to organic and everything in between. Organic fertilization of crops is one of my big research areas. The other, which is probably the most profound, is the use of plasticulture technologies, such as plastic mulch, shade nets and high tunnels.

Throughout my career I have seen the need to improve the way we manage the technology behind plasticulture. There are many benefits to using plastic in both organic and conventional systems but especially for organic growers.

To be able to suppress weeds without chemicals is one of the biggest benefits of using plastic mulch. I’ve also been working on biodegradable mulches that can degrade in the field. We’re just finishing up with trials from this winter, and the biodegradable mulches seem to be holding up reasonably well. There is still a lot to be answered with this technology, but I think we’re moving in the right direction overall.

Habanero peppers grown under a shade net with plastic mulch at the horticulture farm at UGA-Tifton.
Habanero peppers grown under a shade net with plastic mulch at the UGA-Tifton Horticulture Farm.

What has been your biggest motivation over the years?

I think my biggest motivation is to have a type of agriculture that is both safe and profitable for farmers and farm workers. Farm workers are often overlooked for their contribution, but I think we need to recognize that their labor is valuable.

Farmers and farm workers should be able to work in safe and healthy environments, and I hope that some of my work improves farming as a profession while simultaneously benefiting the environment.

What challenges have you faced?

There have been many, but one of the most practical challenges has been limited access to funding that supports this line of research. I have been able to accomplish a lot, but I assure you if I’d had access to more funding I could have done so much more. But I do what I can with what I have and hopefully it’s been helpful in the grand scheme of things.   

Horticulture Professor Juan Carlos Díaz-Pérez stands in the field wearing a sun hat and extending zucchinis toward the camera
According to Georgia Organics, “Land Steward Award winners not only foster a better environment through the soil, but through their larger community through leadership, education and outreach.”

What has been the most rewarding part of your work?

It is a very special moment when you have growers come to tell you how much they appreciate what you have done.

When I see they have used some of the information I developed or helped develop, that’s a very nice moment to behold.

Ultimately we are supposed to be servants, we are serving people of Georgia and the country, and the world in reality, but the people of Georgia first. So when someone thanks me, that’s the best award I can get. 

What do you think will be your legacy?

Hopefully I have contributed to making a more sustainable agriculture — to make at least a small contribution, because I don’t see any other way forward for us as a species.

With climate change, with environmental degradation, we already see indications that we need to change our ways of living and working, and that includes agriculture.

We must improve our sustainability. I hope that some of what I have done helps us bestow the soil to our children in a better condition than we received it.

Georgia Organics’ 25th Anniversary Hog Roast and Annual Awards will be held on June 26 in Stockbridge, Georgia. 

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