Air war aims at wheat rust

The cool, wet spring has made for great growing conditions for wheat -- and one of its major enemies.

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WALLA WALLA -- Great growing conditions have turned into a two-edged sword for wheat farmers this year.

While the cool, wet spring has led to lush fields, it's also created ideal conditions for stripe rust, a major disease that can strangle yields.

Millions of acres throughout Eastern Washington are reported infected and aerial sprayers have been working overtime to apply fungicide to fields. Over the past weekend, crop dusters were flying nonstop as pilots took advantage of good weather to spray. But gusty winds in the forecast today are likely to again curtail operations.

"It's a war right now, for sure," said Scott Yates, director of communications for the Washington Grain Alliance. Stripe rust has "spread basically all over the eastern part of the state and even into areas where it's normally not found."

Perry Dozier, a Walla Walla County commissioner and wheat farmer, said Monday several crop dusters he has talked with told him they are thousands of acres behind in trying to keep up with the demand. Yates said that overall "it's very difficult to get planes (to spray). There's even been reports of farmers gritting their teeth and using ground rigs to spray," in a trade-off between damaging some plants in order to treat the remainder.

In Walla Walla County, wheat crops are facing significant damage because they are at a critical stage with plants near heading, both Dozier and Yates said. The fungus stunts the development of the grains, which significantly reduces yields.

In a Capital Press article printed Friday, Washington Grain Alliance Executive Officer Tom Mick said this year's outbreak has been "devastating. We haven't had an outbreak like this in decades."

"The economic impact right now is hard to determine. It will vary, region by region, but yields could be down 15 percent," Mick was quoted as saying.

According to a Washington State University bulletin, stripe rust has occurred in Washington state since the early 1900s and it became a major disease in the late 1950s. The disease is the most damaging of three cereal rusts occurring in Washington.

Along with cool, wet falls and mild, winters, stripe rust favors long, cool, wet springs, which is exactly the type of weather farmers have had to deal with this year. The saturated ground found in many fields has created ideal conditions for the fungus, Dozier said.

"There's so much moisture when you put your hand down there, it's like a sauna," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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