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Battling Rust, Organic Decline

Posted by | March 23, 2011

WSU Plant Scientist Part of Global Efforts to Fight Deadly UG99 Wheat Rust

Most wheat varieties grown around the world today have no resistance to Ug99, a new race of wheat rust. Photo by Yue Jin/USDA ARS.
Most wheat varieties grown around the world today have no resistance to Ug99, a new race of wheat rust. Photo by Yue Jin/USDA ARS.

Washington State University spring wheat breeder Michael Pumphrey is a team leader in a $40 million, global effort to combat UG99, an evolving wheat pathogen that poses a dangerous threat to global food security, especially those in developing countries.

Pumphrey heads a group of 17 principal investigators for the “Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat” project being led by Cornell University. The United Kingdom’s Department of International Development will contribute approximately $15 million to the project over the next five years; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will contribute $25 million.

“WSU’s leadership role in this global effort speaks to the overall quality of plant science being conducted here,” said Ralph Cavalieri, associate dean and director of WSU’s Agricultural Research Center. “It is important work that could make a major difference in how we feed the world in years to come. And, what we learn as a result of the project will benefit our own wheat breeding efforts for Washington growers.”

The project focuses on identifying new stem rust resistant genes in wheat, improving surveillance for the pathogen and multiplying and distributing rust-resistant wheat seed to farmers and their families. Participation includes national research centers in Kenya and Ethiopia; scientists at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and Syria-based International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas; the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization; and advanced research laboratories in the United States, Canada, China, Australia, Denmark and South Africa. Altogether more than 20 leading universities and research institutes throughout the world are taking part in the project, along with scientists and farmers from more than 40 countries.

Pumphrey’s team is focusing on identifying new sources of resistance to UG99 and then making those sources useful in wheat breeding. They will conduct detailed genetics, pathology and molecular marker research to develop superior wheat lines.

WSU plant pathologist Tim Murray also is working on UG99, primarily to prevent a “homegrown” version of the disease by focusing on a different plant, common barberry. An ornamental plant that settlers carried with them across the United States, barberry is “an essential ingredient in the complicated life of a stem rust fungus, known as Pgt, that could be a precursor to UG99,” Murray said.

In a recent article in Wheat Life Magazine, Murray–along with USDA Agricultural Research Service plant pathologist and rust expert Xianming Chen and WSU Extension agronomist Diana Roberts–said that in addition to wheat or barley, Pgt “requires the common barberry to complete its life cycle.”

“So, although the Pacific Northwest may not be ground zero for stem rust infection, it has been shown to be an incubator for infections that can not only transmit the disease to fields as far away as Minnesota, but can actually produce new races of the stem rust fungus,” the group wrote.

With funding from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Murray, Chen and Roberts have formed a Pacific Northwest barberry working group to investigate reports of barberries and to educate those working in the grain industry about the plant’s dangers. Members of the barberry working group include state and federal scientists as well as extension educators from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The group plans to continue identifying new outbreaks of stem rust so they can monitor the situation, locate barberries, and eradicate them.

For more information on wheat breeding at WSU, please visit

For more information on Michael Pumphrey’s research, please visit

For more information on Tim Murray’s research, please visit

Stripe Rust of Wheat Off to an Early Start

For more information, contact Xianming Chen, USDA-ARS, at 509-335-8086 or
For more information, contact Xianming Chen, USDA-ARS, at 509-335-8086 or

Stripe rust of wheat may be off to an early start this season across much of the Pacific Northwest, reports Xianming Chen, a plant pathologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Pullman. The relatively mild winter, coupled with widespread snow cover, has enabled survival of the rust pathogen in many of the region’s wheat fields.

According to Chen, a cold spell in February slowed, but did not terminate stripe rust development in eastern Washington. “Rust will develop fast when night temperatures are in the 40s and day temperatures are in the 50s,” he said.

As a result, Chen suggests that early application of fungicides will benefit susceptible and moderately susceptible wheat cultivars. “Check your fields when the weather in your area reaches the this temperature range, and if you see stripe rust consider spraying with fungicide even before applying herbicides,” he said.

Washington Organic Agriculture Sector Sees Declines in 2010

Tukey Farm is one of the teaching sites for WSU's pathbreaking program in organic agriculture.
Tukey Farm is one of the teaching sites for WSU's pathbreaking program in organic agriculture.

The number of certified organic producers, organic acreage and farmgate sales all declined in 2010 according to data gathered by the Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. CSANR Sustainable Agriculture Specialist David Granatstein and Research Associate Elizabeth Kirby co-authored the just-completed profile titled “Current Status of Organic Agriculture in Washington State.”

Granatstein and Kirby found that the number of certified producers in the state declined by 18 in 2010 to 735, with five farms transitioning to organic. Certified organic land acreage including double-cropped acres, dropped by six percent to just under 102,000 acres. The declines were seen in both eastern and western Washington.

The study results also showed that acreage devoted to organic forage and vegetable crops each dropped by 15 percent. The vegetable decreases came in green beans, potatoes, onions and sweet corn for the third year in a row.

Organic apple and cherry acreage each declined slightly in 2010, although shipments of organic Gala, Fuji and Honeycrisp apple varieties were higher than the previous year.

There were seven fewer certified organic dairies in 2010 with 5,000 fewer dairy animals and an accompanying reduction in forage land.

The data also revealed areas of growth. Organic dry bean and pulse crop acreage expanded considerably to over 3,400 acres. Organic blueberry production increased to 900 acres with another 230 acres in transition, likely making Washington the nation’s top producer.

With sales data lagging a year behind the farm data, the reported organic farmgate sales for 2009 declined in both eastern and western Washington. Most of the decline was seen on farms with over $1 million in annual sales; smaller farm sales remained stable. Total state organic farmgate sales totaled $210.7 million in 2009, down from $246.7 million in 2008. Grant County led the state in 2009 with organic sales of $52.9 million, more than double the next highest county. On the west side, Skagit County recorded the highest sales at slightly more than $12 million.

Granatstein said that there is some uncertainty about the 2009 sales figures. “Farms that didn’t renew their organic certification in 2010 and therefore did not report their sales for 2009 likely affected the accuracy of the totals provided,” he said.

Despite the state of the economy, retail organic food sales continue to grow, now accounting for 3.7 percent of all U.S. food sales in 2009. “The growth trend is expected to continue, although at a slower pace than over the past decade,” Granatstein said. “That means there continue to be opportunities for growth for those who produce and sell organic food products in Washington state.”

Despite a downturn in 2010, retail sales of organic food continue to grow, opening opportunities for producers and retailers.

CSANR’s full profile can be found at