Beet disease fighters always busy, help produce record crop
Plant scientists fight the war against fungus
FARGO, N.D. — Plant scientists who work to protect Red River Valley sugar beet fields from weeds and disease have helped farmers enjoy record crops in the last two years.
Despite that success, there’s always work to be done — always another fungus or organism waiting in the wings, said Mohamed Khan, a North Dakota State University plant pathologist.
“It’s kind of job security,” he said with a laugh.
“We look at these organisms as our enemies. The only way to control them is to study them and understand them.”
The combination of timely pesticide applications and disease resistant seed varieties has led to back-to-back huge harvests for North Dakota and Minnesota beet farmers.
This year’s yield is expected to be about 24 tons per acre, runner-up to last year’s record of 25.5 tons per acre, said Jeff Schweitzer, a spokesman for American Crystal Sugar Co.
“If you look back five years ago, our floating average was in the 20 to 21 ton range,” he said. “We’ve really seen that jump significantly in the last two years.”
Red River Valley farmers contribute more than 50 percent of the sugar beet pro- duction in the country. American Crystal, the largest sugar beet cooperative, expects to harvest more than 11 million tons of beets this year.
“The growers are happy,” Khan said. “And when the growers are happy, everybody benefits.”
Aphanomyces, fusarium, rhizoctonia and rhizomania are the four primary root diseases that threaten Red River Valley sugar beets, said Allan Cattanach, general agronomist for American Crystal. Seed varieties can be resistant to any three diseases at one time, but rarely all four.
“That would be like winning the Powerball,” he said.
Fighting fungus can be tricky. Growers try to alternate fungicides and apply as little as possible to prevent organisms from mutating.
For all the recent success, Cattanach said, some fields still were abandoned this year because of fusarium and aphanomyces. And a 20 percent hit to a farmer’s crop can be the difference between profit and loss.
“You always try and stay ahead of the latest and greatest challenge,” Cattanach said. “We’re comfortable. But we’re never complacent.”
Mark Nyquist, a sugar beet farmer in western Minnesota, said fighting diseases is an ongoing battle.
“The breeders are aggressively trying to stay on top of this. But then, you get a different strain,” Nyquist said. “The more they learn and the more they know, the more they fight.”
The fight also pits plant scientists against weeds that threaten beets. Kosha, pig- weed and lamb’s-quarters are the biggest problems, Cattanach said. They can be controlled only by pesticides or manual labor.
Kosha is one of the plants commonly known as tumbleweed. Pigweed is an upright plant with few branches, each of which is now capped by fuzzy spikes of seed heads. Lamb’s-quarters is more bushy and, like pigweed, grows from a foot to a few feet high.
“Weeds are still the No. 1 problem,” Cattanach said. “We get a lot of calls and emails about that.”
OMAHA, Neb. — U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson is co-sponsoring a measure to limit federal subsidies available to farmers.
“Megafarms should not receive megapayments,” the Nebraska Democrat said Wednesday in a telephone conference with reporters. “A payment cap will bring equity back to the program.”
Sens. Byron Dorgan, DN.D., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced the amendment that would limit a married couple to $250,000 in subsidies per year. Current law allows $360,000 annually.
The measure is part of the proposed $286 billion federal farm bill now before the Senate.
President Bush has threatened to veto the bill, saying the legislation would not adequately protect farmers and uses “budget gimmicks.”
Nelson acknowledged rumblings that question the president’s motives, noting that the farm bill is less expensive than other Republican-backed bills in years past that did not draw vetoes.
“I don’t know the president’s motives,” he said. “Whether this is sort of a reborn conservatism or whether it’s his concern about not having the budget balloon ... that’s sort of up to speculation.”
ATLANTA (AP) _ What to do when the rain won’t come?
If you’re Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue you pray.
Perdue will host a prayer service on Tuesday to ask for relief from the drought gripping the Southeast.
“The only solution is rain and the only place we get that is from a higher power,” Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said on Wednesday.
Perdue’s office has sent out invitations to leaders from several faiths for the service.
Perdue has several times mentioned the need for prayer — along with water conservation — as the state’s drought crisis has worsened. Over the summer, he participated in day of prayer for agriculture at a gathering of the Georgia Farm Bureau in Macon.
A Baptist, Perdue discussed his faith in some detail in an appearance last year before The Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. He has enjoyed strong support from Georgia’s Christian Conservatives.
The Southeast has been suffering from an epic drought in recent months that has left its lakes parched. Georgia has been locked in a battle with Alabama and Florida over how much water should be sent downstream from the state’s dwindling reservoirs.
Governors from the three states reached a temporary agreement after meeting with Bush administration officials in Washington D. C.
The service will be held outside the state Capitol on Tuesday. Unless, of course, it rains.
“Then we’ll move it inside, thankfully,” Brantley said.