Students in Naidu Rayapati’s “Diseases of Fruit Crops” class got the opportunity to apply their knowledge on diseases gained in the classroom to real-world situations in grower fields. They took a field trip to Prosser, Wash., where they visited tree fruit and grapevine “clean” plant programs at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, studied diseases and disorders in apples and grapes, observed crop protection tactics applied to fruit crops, met with growers and wine makers to assess the economic importance of diseases, and saw firsthand the connection between research and agricultural production.
Dr. Joan Davenport, center, discusses her viticultural research with a couple students.
Rayapati, a plant pathologist at WSU’s IAREC in Prosser, said, “To have successful careers, I strongly feel that students should be able to relate classroom knowledge to practical applications in the field. This kind of field visits makes their learning experiences at WSU more meaningful that just getting a grade. The students will retain these kinds of practical experiences throughout their lives.”
In his class, Rayapati creates an environment in which students witness for themselves the impact WSU research has on growers in Washington. Washington is one of the world’s major producers of apples and other tree fruits, as well as grapes and small fruits. Wine grapes are increasingly important to the area, with Washington now being the second largest producer of wine in North America.
Plant pathology is the study of various types of pathogens (viruses, bacteria, and fungi), how diseases affect plants, the economic impacts diseases have on growers, and the management strategies that can be applied to mitigate crop losses in order to ensure a stable supply of high quality food.
Education bears fruit: students learn about plant health and pathogens in a Washington tree fruit orchard.
“Students should appreciate the connection between diseases and crop production and how diseases can impact our lives and our economy,” Rayapati said. “In a globalized agricultural marketplace, safeguarding our crops from debilitating diseases makes our growers competitive and enables them to export Washington apples, for example, to Indian markets and Washington wine to Chinese consumers.”
“Before taking this class, I couldn’t comprehend the significance of diseases affecting plants,” said senior horticulture major Brittany Komm. “The course taught us that plants are susceptible to a variety of pathogens and we need to use various strategies to keep plants healthy. In this class you’re given the holistic picture, from prevention to management.”
Good grapes! Students love plant pathology field trips because it takes them to where the sweet stuff is: the orchards and vineyards of Washington State.
Unlike annual crops, growing perennial crops is a different ball game and it starts with planting “clean” plants. WSU scientists play key roles in the National Clean Plant Network, a nationwide effort to supply agricultural producers with virus-free plant material. Considerable scientific expertise and rigor is needed to thoroughly screen plant material for viruses and to propagate the clean material. The clean plant material is then released to certified commercial nurseries throughout the Pacific Northwest where it is grown in large enough quantities to sell to producers.
Failure to provide growers with clean planting material would be disastrous, as plants infected with viruses produce inferior fruit that consumers would refuse to buy. Grapevines, for instance, can be infected with grapevine leafroll, a virus which affects vine health and fruit quality. That, in turn, affects the quality of wine produced from the fruit
“It’s critical for undergraduate students, the next generation of global citizens, to understand that WSU is a national leader in providing clean plant material to certified nurseries,” Rayapati said. “Visiting clean plant programs at IAREC provided a unique opportunity for students to learn firsthand the energy invested into this effort and how ‘clean’ plants originating from this center are benefiting society both domestically and internationally.
“In addition to seeing the facilities here in Prosser for cleaning plant material of viruses, our students visited certified nurseries, too. We took them to vineyards to understand the gravity of disease problems and then to wineries to learn from winemakers about affects of leafroll disease on the quality of wine. This whole experience made students better comprehend research and learn about our vital role in minimizing the damage of diseases on perennial crops.”
Dr. Naidu Rayapati discusses plant health with students in a vineyard.
Perennial crops — which include most of our favorite fruits — are expensive to replace, Rayapati said, so they must be disease-free when planted in vineyards and orchards. But, because symptoms are not always visually obvious, it takes special equipment and expertise to detect some plant diseases. Students gain analytical knowledge to distinguish a disease from a disorder and a viral pathogen from a fungal one.
“Dr. Rayapati definitely made the field trip a true learning experience for everybody in the class,” Komm said.
Rayapati’s class is one of only a few in the nation that takes plant pathology out of the text book and into the field.
Looking for leaf roll in a Washington vineyard.
The Agriculture and Food Security major, an interdisciplinary agricultural science major at WSU, combines plant pathology with allied sciences to prepare students to manage plant diseases and pests from a holistic perspective. Students learn to understand the complexity of relationships within agricultural ecosystems, how external factors influence these systems, and how to effectively manage pests and diseases.
Students majoring in Agriculture and Food Security have career prospects in the crop production fields as managers, biological technicians, or they can work for private companies. Their main focus is on maintaining or improving plant health, the nutritional quality of food, and the economic value of crops.
“It’s important that students understand the reasons why plant diseases are so powerful,” Rayapati said. “We need to make sure that the next generation of citizens has a comprehensive knowledge of why we need to grow healthy crops, not only for our own health, but to be competitive in this global economy, too.”
“Even though I am not a chemistry and biology person, this class has really sparked an interest for me. Plant Path 300 is the most memorable class I have ever taken here at WSU,” said Komm.
“Students like this class,” Rayapati said. “They get to run around in the fields, taste grapes and eat apples. It’s a lot of fun.”
By Victoria Marsh, WSU MNEC intern; additional reporting by Brian Clark