Asian soybean fungus found in Pemiscot, New Madrid counties

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

From staff and wire reports

Asian soybean rust -- a fungus that can hinder plant growth and drastically cut crop production -- has been found in Southeast Missouri, state agriculture officials said Tuesday.

The samples were collected by University of Missouri Extension scientists from soybean fields in Pemiscot and New Madrid counties.

Missouri agriculture officials said the fungus will not have an effect on this year's harvest.

Soybean rust was first confirmed in the United States in Louisiana on Nov. 10 and now has been found in seven states, the Missouri Department of Agriculture said. The other states are Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Although nobody knows for sure how the spores reached the United States, Hurricane Ivan is considered a likely suspect because it swept along the South American coast before heading north, said University of Georgia plant pathologist Bob Kemerait. The disease has been found in South America, Asia and Africa.

Soybean rust can be treated with fungicides. But farmers could have to spend an additional $20 an acre, which could multiply into a statewide cost of $100 million if all 5 million acres of Missouri soybean fields are treated, said Dale Ludwig, executive director and chief executive officer of the Missouri Soybean Association.

"It's potentially quite serious," said Ludwig, adding that he didn't expect the emergence of the fungus to greatly alter farmers' planting patterns.

The fungus creates reddish-brown blotches on growing leaves, weakening the plant and reducing yields.

Working on new varieties

Scientists are working on resistant varieties, but those are still 5 to 10 years away, said Alma, Mo., grower Neal Bradehoeft, president of the American Soybean Association.

Officials in Illinois, the nation's leading soybean producer, say the state is prepared for the outbreak. A program of scouting and testing for the disease has been in place since March, and officials have been working with chemical companies to develop recommendations for controlling it.

Soybean rust spores cannot survive subfreezing temperatures. But agricultural officials are concerned the spores could survive the South's mild winter, possibly attacking soybeans next year in the Midwest and parts of Mississippi, where the bulk of the crop is grown.

Laura Sweets, plant pathologist with the commercial ag program at the University of Missouri, said that most research indicates that the rust could only survive winters in the southernmost parts of Florida and Texas. She said that since the fungus survives off of plants in the field, killing frosts would make its winter survival unlikely in Missouri. However, she said no one knows for sure.

"If the rust can survive the winter, it'll be on us a lot quicker," said agronomist Gerald Bryan with the University of Missouri Extension Service for Cape Girardeau County.

If the rust only survives in the warmer climes of the United States, Bryan said, it can be tracked better as it blows in from those areas, and Southeast Missouri farmers can then more accurately prepare for its coming.

Staff writer Tony Rehagen contributed to this report.

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