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Researchers win $1.2 million grant to help stem crop diseases

Dec. 8, 2008

KALAMAZOO--A multi-university team of researchers led by Dr. Kathleen Baker of Western Michigan University will use sophisticated weather forecasting methods to reduce crop disease with the help of a nearly $1.2 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Baker, a WMU assistant professor of geography, is working to limit the effects of global change on crop diseases through sophisticated modeling of disease risks under changing growing season conditions. This new effort will apply her models to crop-specific disease prediction based on newly available weather forecasts. The results will be disseminated to farmers via the Internet.

Researchers will be targeting plant diseases affecting crops in three regions of the country: leaf spot of peanuts in the Southeast in Georgia and northern Florida; Fusarium head blight of barley in the northern Great Plains; and late blight of potatoes in Michigan and the Great Lakes.

Institutional partners in the effort are the University of Georgia, South Dakota State University, the University of Idaho and Michigan State University. The team's long-term goal is to reduce disease infestation and better manage the application of fungicides used to combat it. The result will be a win-win situation when farmers save money while decreasing the release of potentially harmful chemicals into the environment.

Growers already use weather data and forecasting models to adjust the spraying of pesticides on crops, Baker says. But forecasts have not given the growers sufficient lead time for decision making. By using more accurate, long-range weather forecasts and the early warning system developed by the project, growers can improve the timing of pesticide application and better manage disease risk.

The savings can be substantial, Baker says. In 2005, leaf spot disease of peanuts caused $6.3 million in crop damage and cost $35 million to contain it. For soybeans, which USDA uses as the test crop in disease risk modeling, they estimate that resolving 20 percent of the forecast uncertainty with soybean rust alone would save growers $11 million.

"If we can help limit uncertainty of the forecasts, we can save the growers a lot of money," Baker says." By timing their spraying more efficiently, they may use less fungicides and less fuel when there is low risk of disease occurrence."

Daily updates of the long-range forecasts will be provided via Web-based delivery systems tuned to the needs of growers.

The project grew out of Baker's doctoral work with potato growers in Michigan. Research partners working under Baker's leadership in the four-year project are:

  • Dr. Joel Paz of the University of Georgia Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering
  • Dr. Jeffrey Stein of the South Dakota State University Department of Plant Biology
  • Dr. Dennis Todey of the South Dakota State University Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering
  • Dr. William Kirk of the Michigan State University Department of Plant Pathology
  • Dr. Phillip Wharton of the University of Idaho Department of Plant Pathology

Partners at the Indiana University's School of Informatics and the San Diego Supercomputer Center will assist in the development of necessary cyberinfrastructure.

The researchers hope the project will prove that similar systems could be developed to better manage diseases for other crops across the United States and internationally.

"That's especially important in the context of climate change," Baker says, "because growers today are much less certain of what's going to happen in a particular growing season."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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