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Airborne threat for Minnesota farmers

(Wednesday, March 24, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Joy Powell, Star Tribune (Minnesota), 03/20/04: For many Minnesota farmers, the usual spring planting optimism will be tempered this year by a threat to soybean crops like none they have seen: A wind-borne fungus called Asian soybean rust is expected to arrive from South America, carrying the potential to devastate much of the crop.

Experts say it's only a matter of time -- several months to several years -- before the fungus invades the United States after ravaging crops in Brazil, Africa, India and elsewhere in the past decade.

"We regard soybean rust right now as the single greatest threat to agriculture," said Geir Friisoe, manager of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's plant-protection section.

The fungus could cause losses of 10 to 40 percent in Midwestern soybean fields, said Jim Kurle, a soybean pathologist at the University of Minnesota. Even if they apply fungicides, farmers could still see damage, he said. Rust could change prices and planting decisions for the state's soybean farmers, who last year enjoyed $1.3 billion in sales as the nation's third-largest producers of the crop.

"It's really going to change the way people manage soybeans," Kurle said. "They are going to have an added cost they never considered before."

Countless rust spores are drifting on circular trade winds south of the equator, where experts say they are expected to break free of the wind patterns and be carried north. Researchers also are eying the less likely possibility that the spores carrying rust could arrive in vegetation mixed with soybean imports from Brazil.

The disease could slash profits for many farmers through the expense of costly fungicides and reduced yields of soybeans, Minnesota's leading crop. Rust attacks the soybean plant's leaves, causing them to drop early, inhibiting pod setting and reducing yield.

Meanwhile, soybean prices soared to a 15-year high this week and several farmers said they're not ready to change their planting intentions because the disease isn't here yet.

Prices have risen to nearly $9.80 a bushel in Chicago as supplies tightened because of drought and feed processors' demand for soybeans. But the shrinking soybean reserves, some say, could increase the chances that rust could arrive in the United States in imports from Brazil, where the disease is raging.

Should the disease spread into the heartland, Minnesota farmers would face hefty costs for spraying fungicides on top of pesticides for the aphid infestation that ate into profits last year. It generally costs $10 to $11 to spray an acre for aphids, and $20 to $50 an acre for multiple applications of spray for Asian rust, said Ron Heck, president of the American Soybean Association.

"Rust has the potential to devastate the U.S. soybean industry," said Heck, who farms near Perry, Iowa.

He and others in commodity groups are uniting with government and academic experts to battle the pending invasion, which comes at a bad time for soybean growers. Minnesota farmers last summer faced big losses from an unprecedented aphid infestation, along with a crop-withering drought and worms called nematodes that attack soybean roots.

The state's average number of soybean bushels fell to 31 harvested per acre, down from a lush harvest in 2002, when farmers reaped 45 bushels per acre. Overall, the damage cost an estimated $280 million in losses statewide in the crop.

Taking up weapons

To battle the Asian rust threat, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is seeking emergency exemptions from the Environmental Protection Agency to apply fungicides usually restricted to other kinds of plants, Friisoe said.

Working with the University of Minnesota, state agriculture officials also are building a network that would quickly notify farmers should the disease arrive, as well as train extension educators, crop consultants and farmers in how to scout for the disease.

Heck said no other threat has come close to the seriousness of Asian rust.

"If you're unable to spray in a timely manner, you could lose up to 90 percent of your crop," he said.

Farmers also are worried about whether there will be enough fungicide should rust hit sooner and spread faster than expected.

Jim Peters, technical brand manager for Syngenta Crop Protection of Greensboro, N.C., said his company is ready to arm U.S. farmers to fight the fungus when it arrives.

"Certainly, their concern is justifiable, based on how devastating this disease could be," Peters said.

Brazilian farmers last year lost an estimated $1.3 billion to soybean rust and the costs of chemical applications. That's roughly 10 percent of their total crop value.

Most Brazilian farmers are now spraying for the fungus and other hazards, and some fields are requiring multiple applications of Syngenta's fungicide Quadris, partnered with a preventative spray, Bravo.

Syngenta has approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to use its products on soybeans in the United States. Extrapolating from the conditions in Brazil, Syngenta has begun building its inventory of the fungicides to fight an initial attack of the spores on U.S. soil, Peters said.

When it comes to fighting rust, Minnesota farmers have a natural edge over the Brazilian farmers, who raise about 50 million acres of soybeans each year. "It could not survive our winters," said Prof. Jim Orf, a soybean breeder at the University of Minnesota. "It would basically have to be blown up here on the winds each summer, if it does get to the Southern U.S."

But the fungus could survive in Southern states' vegetation and legumes such as clover, peas and kudzu -- a weed -- and spread north each season to soybean fields, he said.

Seth Naeve, a plant pathologist at the University of Minnesota, said the disease could take hold just in spots, or it could sweep across the United States. Rust is unprecedented in the breadth of damage it wreaks across topography, he said, and no other soybean disease on the continent has such potential in terms of yield losses.

"If the whole crop was reduced even by 20 percent, on average, it would be a pretty drastic reduction in our production," Naeve said.

"It's very serious," said Heck, of the American Soybean Association. "Those countries that have Asian rust usually have soybean yields of about 30 bushels an acre or less. Those countries that don't have soybean rust usually have yields of 40 bushels per acre."

If prices for October delivery are $7.40 a bushel, for example, losses of 10 bushels an acre translate into $74 lost per acre -- wiping out profits for U.S. farmers, Heck said.

As with any disease, timing is critical to catch the fungus early and reduce the amount of chemicals needed, said Allison Tally, a technical brand manager in fungicides for Syngenta. For that reason, Southern states could be hit hardest as the spores land there first, experts said.

"Here, we would have more warning than Florida or Georgia," said Michael Schommer of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, "but certainly we have to be prepared for it before it gets to the United States."

Heck said eventually, biotechnology or possibly selective breeding could be used to develop rust-resistant soybeans.

"If we can delay rust getting here for several years," he said, "we would have an opportunity to put protection in the genetics of the seed."

Source: http://www.startribune.com/stories/535/4674956.html