Maryland farmers are preparing for an invasion of the dreaded soybean rust.
The disease poses a potentially devastating threat to one of the largest segments of the state's agriculture industry.
Soybean rust, or Asian soybean rust, is a highly contagious fungal disease that has been steadily creeping toward Maryland from the Deep South since it was first discovered in Louisiana a little more than a year ago.
In other parts of the world, including southern Africa and South America, it has reduced soybean yields by as much as 80 percent when left untreated.
"Yeah, we know we face the threat," said Lewis R. Riley, Maryland agriculture secretary. "There's a chance that it will show up here this year, but we are hoping it won't.
"Farmers need to be prepared and they will have to keep an eye out for the fungus," said Riley. "You have really got to get out into the field, part the plants and look at the leaves down near the roots. That's where you are going to see the first signs of an infestation.
"If you see it [signs of an outbreak] while driving by your field in a pickup, it is too late. It has gone too far for any remedy."
So far, soybean rust has been confirmed in nine states: Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Maryland officials have watched it spread state by state, the latest in Tennessee, and wonder when the first signs of a blight on the soybean plant leaves will show up in fields here.
"It is something we are watching very closely," said Riley.
The fungus poses no threat to humans, but it can have a serious economic impact on farming.
To help fight the battle against the spreading disease, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of more than a half-dozen fungicides.
"We don't know how effective they will be," said Riley. "But there are indications that if a farmer catches the problem early these sprays can be very helpful."
Agricultural scientists said the fungus most likely made it way into the United States last year from South America by catching a ride on the winds of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan.
It was first discovered in Japan in 1902. It moved through Asia, Australia and Africa before making its way to Brazil and Argentina in 2000.
Agricultural officials warn that the windblown fungus can travel more than 1,000 miles a year, well within the range of Maryland grain fields this year.
There is also concern that it could affect other plants, such as green beans and snap beans.
"We grow a lot of green beans in Carroll and Frederick counties and lima beans on the central Shore," said Riley. "That's another reason to watch the spread of this disease very, very carefully.
"We don't know that soybean rust will spread to Maryland in the next year or so, but we have been preparing to handle such a situation for some time," said Riley.
He said the department, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland, "scored high marks" during an exercise last year simulating the detection of the disease in the soybean-producing region of Delmarva.
Despite its long history, scientists are not sure how the disease will affect the big U.S. soybean crop.
"So many factors potentially make the management of soybean rust different in the United States than in Asia," said Erick De Wolf, a plant pathologist at Penn State University. "This is a new disease on this continent, so a lot will be determined by where the rust survives, how it moves and which crops are affected."
U.S. farmers planted 74 million acres of soybeans last year, valued at $18 billion.
Approximately 500,000 of Maryland's 1.6 million acres of cropland are planted in soybeans each year.
Soybeans, most of which provide feed for poultry and livestock, accounted for $86 million in farm income in 2003 and ranked fifth in farm income behind poultry, greenhouse/nursery, dairy and corn.