Asian soybean rust fungal disease makes its way into Maryland


November 09, 2008|By TED SHELSBY

Asian soybean rust, a contagious fungal disease that has devastated soybean crops in some Southern states and other parts of the world, has made its way to Maryland.

According to agriculture officials, the fungus, which can reduce a soybean field's yield by as much as 80 percent if left untreated, has been discovered in a sentinel plot in Worcester County, just across the state line from Selbyville, Del.

It is the first discovery of the crop disease in Maryland or Delaware. In 2006, soybean rust was detected in Virginia.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been tracking the spread of the plant-killing disease since it was discovered in Japan in 1902. It moved through Asia, Australia and Africa before making its way to Brazil and Argentina in 2000.

It arrived in the U.S. in 2004, according to scientists who suspect that the fungus spores caught a ride on the winds of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan.

While an infestation can have a serious economic impact on farming, scientists say it poses no threat to humans.

The fungus will have no impact on Maryland's nearly 15 million-bushel soybean crop this year, according to Arv Grybauskas, a University of Maryland Extension plant pathologist.

"It happened at the very end of the growing season, and in fact, frost had already damaged the uppermost foliage of this extremely late soybean sentinel plot," Grybauskas said.

He said the disease is killed by frost and cannot survive a Maryland winter.

"The key message to take from this find," Grybauskas said, "is that soybean rust can blow into our region, and under the right combination of temperature, moisture and plant susceptibility could cause infection in our soybean crop.

"It will take a combination of unusual events to provide favorable conditions earlier in the growing season to be a significant threat," he said. "Nevertheless, we must keep vigilant to protect this significant component of our agricultural economy in the future."

University of Maryland Extension agents have been educating farmers on how to spot the fungus, which shows up as reddish-brown blotches on the plant leaves.

Oh, never mind

That's the word from the folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's crop reporting service, which recently sent out a correction to last month's crop estimate report.

The correction noted that figures for the estimated corn acreage planted and harvested in the U.S. this year were off by a million acres. For soybeans, the numbers were off even more. The revised estimate for soybean acreage planted and harvested this year is down 1.1 million acres.

The government now estimates that U.S. farmers will produce 12 billion bushels of corn. This is down about 167 million bushels from the USDA's original estimate Oct. 10.

The new number for soybean production is 2.94 billion bushels. That represents a drop of 45 million bushels.

Carol House, deputy administrator of programs and products with the National Agricultural Statistics Service, blamed the bad numbers on discrepancies in computer databases used by the USDA and its Farm Service Agency.

The corrected report did not change the farm picture in Maryland.

"Maryland's figures were OK," said Ellen Dougherty, a spokeswoman for the USDA.

According to the government's October report, Maryland farmers are expecting to harvest 47.3 million bushels of corn this year.

The government's October report estimated that state farmers would produce 14.7 million bushels of soybeans this year.

Corn and soybeans are Maryland's top grain crops. Most of the grain is sold to Eastern Shore poultry companies and made into chicken feed.

Let's talk turkey

If the leaves on the trees are turning red, yellow and orange, it must be getting close to turkey time.

The best turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner come fresh from the farm, says state Agriculture Secretary Roger Richardson.

"Maryland farmers grow some of the freshest and best-tasting turkeys in the country," he said.

Buying locally, he added, also supports Maryland's farm economy.

Turkeys are a small part of Maryland's poultry industry.

Last year, farmers raised 750,000 turkeys, totaling more than 26.3 million pounds and valued at $13.7 million.

For a list of 66 farms and other businesses selling turkeys to the public, go to the Maryland Department of Agriculture Web site:

Once on the site, click on "read more" directions under the picture of a turkey. That will put you into the Maryland Best site, where you type in the word "turkey" in the find box at the top of the page for a list of turkey farms across the state.

Save those stalks

Nearly 90 percent of the corn grown in Maryland has been harvested. The process has left thousands of acres of foot-tall cornstalks, called corn stovers.

At least a portion of these stalks should be left in the ground. They help prevent soil erosion, and they recycle essential plant nutrients into the soil.

In the Midwest, it is estimated that 100 million to 150 million tons of the corn crop residue is left on fields.

"Crop residue is not just trash," says soil scientist Doug Karlen, who works at the Agricultural Research Service's National Soil Tilth Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

He and other government scientists say cornstalks can be used in the production of ethanol to help fuel our cars and heat our homes.

"Our results indicate that the cob and the upper portion of the corn stover have the best characteristics for being made into ethanol," Karlen said. "And if we harvest just this part of the plant for biofuel, we will probably leave enough crop residue on the field for soil conservation."

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