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On Solid Ground – January 2015

Posted by | January 14, 2015

January 2015

Robotic orchard bins to be tested by WSU scientists

The manually operated research prototype of a self-propelled bin carrier created by WSU researchers.
The manually operated research prototype of a self-propelled bin carrier created by WSU researchers.

Washington State University researchers were awarded a $1 million federal grant to develop an intelligent bin management system supported by a robotic self-propelled fruit bin carrier in tree fruit orchards.

“This grant gives us the chance to convert what we thought would work into something that orchards can use,” said Dr. Qin Zhang, who will lead the research. “It’s one aspect to help address the overall labor shortage that orchards are dealing with.”

Zhang, director of the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems and professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, said the project objective is to develop a system that can place and collect bins in a fruit tree orchard to reduce labor needs and increase worker productivity. Researchers will develop algorithms for a self-propelled robotic bin carrier, test the system in a lab, and then validate it in a working orchard.

The grant is one of four totaling $3 million awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in December as part of the National Robotics Initiative, a partnership that includes NIFA, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, and the Department of Defense.

The goal of the National Robotics Initiative is to accelerate the development and use of robots in the United States that work alongside or cooperatively with people.

—Scott Weybright

Winter soil testing, research aid spinach seed growers

Soil from area growers is being tested through mid-February at Washington State University Mount Vernon to determine field suitability for planting spinach seed in spring. Meanwhile, related spinach disease research recently was accepted for publication in the scientific journal Plant Disease.

“This is the time of year we offer a greenhouse soil bioassay to test fields for the risk of spinach Fusarium wilt,” said Lindsey du Toit, WSU plant pathologist. This is the sixth winter of testing. The cost is $200 per field.

“Our purpose is to help growers and seed company personnel identify fields that can be planted to a spinach seed crop in shorter rotations than the current recommended rotation of 10-15 years out of spinach,” duToit said. “More important, the bioassay is intended to help identify fields that should not be planted to spinach seed crops because of a high risk of Fusarium wilt.”

Limestone yields temporary benefits

One way to help suppress the fungus is to treat susceptible fields with limestone, which was studied by former WSU Mount Vernon graduate student Emily Gatch.

Lindsey du Toit and Mike Derie conduct tests to create control soils at various levels of risk for harboring Fusarium wilt. (Photo by Kim Binczewski, WSU)
Lindsey du Toit and Mike Derie conduct tests to create control soils at various levels of risk for harboring Fusarium wilt.
(Photo by Kim Binczewski, WSU)

“The maritime Pacific Northwest is the only region of the United States suitable for production of spinach seed—a cool-season, day-length-sensitive crop,” du Toit said. “However, the acidic soils of this region are highly conducive to spinach Fusarium wilt.

“Raising soil pH with limestone partially suppresses spinach Fusarium wilt,” she said, “but the suppressive effect is transitory.”

Gatch found that annual application of limestone for three years prior to a spinach seed crop was superior to a single limestone application for suppressing the fungus and increasing seed yield, du Toit said.

“She developed our soil-based greenhouse bioassay to characterize the spinach Fusarium wilt risk of soil samples submitted from stakeholders’ fields and explore the mechanisms of limestone-mediated Fusarium wilt suppression,” duToit said.

“Her research demonstrated relationships among soil properties and spinach Fusarium wilt development, increased the capacity for and profitability of U.S. spinach seed production, and will guide future research on soil-based management of this disease,” said du Toit.

Soil testing identifies risks

For the bioassay, spinach seed producers and growers bring in a 5-gallon soil sample from each field to be analyzed by du Toit’s research team, which includes Mike Derie, Barbara Holmes and Sarah Meagher.

Seed is planted in three parent spinach lines that range from highly susceptible to partially resistant to Fusarium wilt. The seed germinates within a week; within three weeks, symptoms of the fungus begin to show on the plants.

Left to right: The same spinach line planted in high-, medium- and low-risk soils. (Photo courtesy of Lindsey du Toit, WSU)
Left to right: The same spinach line planted in high-, medium- and low-risk soils.
(Photo courtesy of Lindsey du Toit, WSU)

“If all the plants come out healthy, the field is considered low risk,” Derie said. “Nobody’s going to plant spinach in a high-risk field.

“No one else is doing this kind of service for growers,” he said. “It’s really a great deal for them, considering what it would cost to have invested in seed-bed preparation—including ground work, herbicide treatment, fertilizer application, seed purchase and planting, and related labor and equipment—and then lose the whole crop to Fusarium wilt.

“The disease often won’t show up until the crop (flowers),” he said. “And by then it’s too late and the growers and seed companies have lost their investment.

“What we’re doing through this soil testing service is giving them informed options for making decisions,” he said, “like what seed lines to use and what fields to plant.”

—Cathy McKenzie

WSU WADDL is site for latest avian influenza testing

Animal disease authorities both nationally and in Washington were already on high alert when in early December a large wild duck die-off occurred in northwest Washington.

The event was soon under investigation by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The alertness and quick response were part of a multiagency disease surveillance that had identified efforts in British Columbia, Canada, to deal with an outbreak of HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza), strain H5N2, during fall 2014.

On Dec. 9, samples from the ducks were tested for avian influenza (AI) at the Washington State University Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Puyallup, Wash. (WADDL-Puyallup). The preliminary results were positive for a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus.

ChickenThe “highly pathogenic” designation means it was an influenza virus capable of causing severe disease and high mortality in domestic poultry.

On Dec. 11, a privately owned falcon from the same region was submitted by its owner to WADDL-Puyallup for cause-of-death determination. Based on its history of being legally fed wild duck meat, testing for AI was initiated immediately. Within hours, results were positive for two indicators of HPAI.

By protocol, additional samples from both cases were expedited to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL) in Ames, Iowa, for confirmatory testing and further virus characterization.

Independently, samples were received by the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) in Madison, Wis. On Dec. 14, the falcon was confirmed positive for the H5N8 strain of AI, or HPAI H5N8.

Almost simultaneously with the identification of HPAI in the falcon, a wild duck from the same geographical region of Washington was confirmed positive for HPAI H5N2.

Immediately after the confirmation of HPAI in Washington, the USDA, Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Health and WSU WADDL collaborated with others to establish a pre-planned incident command structure and an aggressive enhanced surveillance program for AI.

On Dec. 18, WSU WADDL-Pullman began receiving samples for HPAI testing in its Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) testing laboratories, a core lab in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network.

WADDL’s experienced and highly trained laboratory staff use state-of-the-art equipment to conduct high throughput testing, meaning large volumes of samples and the shortest turnaround times. Combined with its information technology expertise and nationally standardized procedures, WADDL can effectively and safely conduct HPAI testing.

It is expected that surveillance testing will continue for months and include analysis of thousands of samples. Should the situation worsen, WADDL and its partner laboratories in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network are prepared to handle whatever testing loads may arise. WADDL is also working closely with both NVSL and the NWHC in further diagnostic testing and characterization.

Persons seeing sickness in domestic birds should contact the WSDA Avian Health Program at 1-800-606-3056. Sick and dead wild birds should be reported to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at 1-800-606-8768. If you are concerned about sickness in yourself or your family, please contact Washington State Department of Health at 1-800-525-0127.

—Charlie Powell


Market value: annual conference of the Washington State Farmers Market Association

The 2015 Washington State Farmers Market Association conference will be held February 6-8 at the Olympia Red Lion in Olympia. The conference is aimed at market managers, policy makers, state agencies, non-profit organizations, and farmers.

For more information, email or visit their website.

Product Development for Value-Added Prepared Foods

The Food Ingredient Technology (FIT) short course provides an overview of major food ingredients used in value-added foods and how they are used in making foods that consumers want.

The course will be at the Doubletree Hilton Hotel Seattle Airport in Seattle on February 25-26. Early registration ends February 9. Continuing Education Units are available for attendees who finish the course.

For more information, visit the course website.


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