Farmers planning a large soybean acreage increase can rest easy: funding for this year’s Asian soybean rust alert system is set. However, funding for 2009 and beyond is less certain.

“I can tell you plant pathologists — folks who understand what this rust can do to our crops in short order — are very worried about this,” says Clayton Hollier, LSU AgCenter plant pathologist. “We have a well-functioning program and excellent people in place. We need to maintain it. The program is doing exactly what it’s supposed to. How often can you say that?”

In February, a few plant pathologists — including a contingent from the Mid-South — gathered in St. Louis to discuss the funding situation.

“We batted around the what-ifs,” says Hollier. “If funding drops to (X or Y) levels, what can be done? If government funding dries up completely, where can we go to get funding?”

The resulting answers and scenarios “weren’t pretty.”

Funding

Since soybean rust was first discovered in Louisiana in 2004, a “rust pipeline” has been developed through the cooperation of federal agencies, producers and state and university researchers. Aimed at providing producers an early alert for rust movement — a key in treating soybeans with fungicides in a timely manner — the system has evolved to include, among other things, soybean sentinel plots, spore traps, disease prediction models, and a Web site (http://www.sbrusa.net/).

For the last two years, the rust pipeline — which costs taxpayers some $1.7 million annually — has been funded largely by USDA’s Risk Management Agency.

“The problem comes in with funding appropriations,” says Heyward Baker, RMA director. “The specific pot of funding (used for the rust program) is tied to an allowance used … for development of research tools. The unknown is what will happen with the new farm bill. There’s been some concern that some of the funding could be cut, but that’s not a sure thing.”

“By statute, RMA can’t fund things like this forever,” explains Don Hershman, University of Kentucky Extension plant pathologist. “It’s not their fault. The agency may want to help, but there’s a legal restriction about maintaining such programs once they’re fully established. It’s hard to argue the rust pipeline isn’t mature. So we’ve got to find funding elsewhere.”

Another option for funding is in President Bush’s budget proposal for 2009. A line in the budget would support ipmPIPE (the parent organization for the soybean rust program) core functions.

“If the president’s budget line — $2.277 million — is funded, it would go a long ways toward having this ipmPIPE develop into a tool available as serious issues like (soybean rust) come along,” says Marty Draper, national program leader for plant pathology with the Cooperative States Research Education and Extension Service. “We don’t want a situation where the next crisis in American agriculture causes us to have to recreate a tool” like the one already in place for soybean rust.

The rust alert system, says Draper, “is a sparkling example of what we can accomplish when working together …. I think everyone is in agreement that the program is important, is useful and has done a lot of good. It’s allowed producers (an avenue) for solid information.”

It’s worked so well, in fact, that legume issues other than rust — like soybean aphid — are now being tracked. “Since we were in soybean fields already, (the aphids) were a logical addition,” says Draper. Two new crops, pecans and pickling cucumbers, are also being added to the ipmPIPE this year. Other crops can easily be added in the future.

South is key

Unlike some other diseases, once discovered, soybean rust must not be allowed a grace period. That’s why scouting and sentinel plots are so important.

“A lot of diseases we encounter can be taken care of just through regular scouting activities — you just keep an eye out for it, says Hershman. “But that isn’t an option for soybean rust which has such devastating potential. We need people out there searching for rust alone.”

John Rupe, plant pathologist with the University of Arkansas, agrees. “Leaving soybean rust to be found through a farmer’s own scouting won’t be adequate. By the time it’s found, the disease is almost always well ahead of the point when it needed a fungicide. Farmers need that early warning.”

Hollier is emphatic that even if funding for the alert system dries up, the need for scouting along the Gulf Coast is paramount. “States on the (Gulf of Mexico) are the ones where rust will overwinter or show up first. Some people say, ‘Well, rust hasn’t hurt us. It isn’t that big of a threat.’ That is the perfect definition of false security.

“Some day soon, when a storm moves through, dumping rain and breaking droughts, soybean rust will explode. I’m absolutely convinced of it.”

One only needs to look at Louisiana’s history with the fungal disease to get Hollier’s point. Soybean rust was first discovered outside Baton Rouge in November 2004. It was found in October 2005, in June 2006 and in early May 2007.

“This disease is overwintering in the South and showing up earlier and earlier in the season. That should make everyone nervous.”

Billy Moore says the most important sentinel plots in the country are those in the Southern coastal areas. “For the sake of our Southern farmers, it is incredibly important those sentinel plots be maintained,” says the Mississippi Extension plant pathologist emeritus. “And it isn’t just for them. The most important alert for Northern farmers is what is happening to fields in the South.

“Rust hasn’t hit us hard yet. Initially, there was talk about a 40 percent loss of soybeans in the South. That hasn’t happened yet, thank God. But that isn’t because it can’t happen, or won’t happen.”

Filtering out

Word on the rust program’s shaky funding is slowly reaching farmers and their advocates.

“We suspect that the state soybean groups know little about this,” says Hershman. “That’s one thing we’ll remedy over the next few weeks. Something that complicates this is certain groups are allowed to lobby and others can’t. For instance, the United Soybeans Board can’t lobby. On the other hand, if the American Soybean Association wants to get involved, it can.”

Allen Wrather, Missouri Extension plant pathologist, says the rust PIPE currently needs “a champion, someone to pick this up and not let go until it’s fixed and we have funding. This is not just an issue for the South. I know growers in the Bootheel certainly want to know when rust is headed their way.”

The same is true even further north. “For Northern states, the rust (alert system) is a very important component for how we make recommendations and what needs to be managed,” says Loren Giesler, Extension plant pathologist at the University of Nebraska. “All of us in the North are uneasy about a sentinel system not existing in the future.”

Giesler says one positive, sometimes overlooked aspect of the rust program is its ability to kick rumors aside. “Imagine the rumors that would run rampant without the program. With it, those concerns are eliminated — and that’s one of the things I like best about it. Producers know there is a network looking for soybean rust. That gives them confidence” and lessens the chance they’ll make costly and unwise spraying decisions.

Meanwhile, the champion Wrather calls for — whether single or a collective — may show up at the USDA ipmPIPE Summit beginning April 17 in Washington, D.C. The point of the summit “is to bring all the policymakers, the agriculture organizations — anyone with a dog in the hunt — together,” says Hershman. “We’ll be looking for solutions and I have high hopes.”

Moore has no doubt that “Southern promotion boards will want to continue this effort. They know it’s crucial — especially if those latest overwintering predictions hold up.

“Think about this: there is a lot more wheat in the South than we’ve had in a long time. If soybean seed can be located, that means there will be a lot of wheat-beans.”

By necessity, those wheat-beans will be planted and harvested late. “And when has rust shown up the last couple of years? Late! That concerns me very much.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com