Extension soybeans rust Alabama

Extension's response to disease threat shows its value to farming

During the presentation of the 2013 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Awards earlier this summer, lower Southeast region winner Tim McMillan of Georgia was asked a question regarding his production practices. His answer was a modest, “I just do what Extension tells me to do.”

While the real answer is certainly more complicated, involving the fact that Tim is an excellent farmer in his own right, there’s a basic truth here – that by following the unbiased recommendations of the Cooperative Extension System, growers can at least put themselves in the position to be successful. Call it a “starting point” for success.

The Cooperative Extension System has a rich history, with the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 establishing this unique partnership between agricultural colleges and the USDA to support agricultural Extension work. But to me, it proves day in and day out to be a modern miracle of learning.

Having taught occasionally at the college level, I’ve learned a thing or two about the challenges of devising an effective system of learning that meets the most immediate needs of the clients, or students, and Extension has it down to a science, literally.

I got a first-hand look at the effectiveness of this system recently during a farm meeting held in northeast Alabama. The purpose of the meeting was to update growers about the discovery of soybean rust in the region, the urgency being that the disease showed up about a month earlier than normal.

(To see a full report on the event, see Soybean rust showing up a month early in north Alabama. You might also be interested in Rust blanketing Alabama soybean crop).

As I stood there on a steamy Monday afternoon in a shop on Jimmy Miller’s Blount County farm, it occurred to me the chain of events that had to occur to make such a meeting possible. It’s part of what makes Extension so special and so invaluable to farmers.

A little background is helpful here. In case you don’t already know, soybean rust is one of the most important soybean diseases worldwide. In fact, it’s such a threat that the pathogen that causes it was included on a list of “select agents” in the 2002 U.S.A. Bioterrorsim Act. In other words, it has the potential to be used as a weapon of terrorism.

In November of 2004, rust was found for the first time in the continental U.S. in Louisiana, probably coming in with Hurricane Ivan.

One of the most reliable early detection methods for soybean rust is the use of sentinel plots — small plots that are planted several weeks earlier than the commercial crops and monitored for the development of the disease. This provides an early warning, giving growers time to apply a protective fungicide. In Alabama, there are about 20 such plots planted throughout the state.

But back to that meeting on Jimmy Miller’s farm. Soybean rust apparently was detected and confirmed by Extension plant pathologist Ed Sikora in two north Alabama sentinel plots. With the disease confirmed, specialists like agronomist Charlie Burmester began considering how to best get the word out to growers in the region. The result was that within days of the disease’s detection, meetings were being held to advise farmers how to protect their soybean yields from potential devastation.

Consider the wealth of knowledge present – Sikora and Burmester, entomologists Barry Freeman and Tim Reed, regional agent David Derrick, and soybean specialist Dennis Delaney, along with a few others that I’ve probably failed to mention.

Sikora said it best when speaking to the gathering of farmers: “One good thing for our growers is that you have our crops team working for you. We’ve been able to find soybean rust very early in its disease cycle, giving you time to prepare for it. It’s nothing to panic about. It’s a disease that easily can be controlled with fungicides if they’re applied in an effective and timely manner. We have time to deal with that problem.”

Without Extension’s efforts, growers would not have been afforded this luxury of time in dealing with such a serious threat to their livelihoods.

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