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Nationwide help an e-mail away for Kansas plants

By Kathleen Ward


Kansans can't expect world-class scientists to visit individual fields and gardens whenever crop or plant problems develop. Yet, a Kansas State University project is coming close to doing just that.

Jim StackThe National Plant Diagnostic Network puts U.S. insect, weed and plant disease specialists at the fingertips of K-State Research and Extension agents in all 105 Kansas counties. K-State plant pathologist Jim Stack, pictured at left, is executive director of the national network. He's also director of one of its five regional land-grant university hubs – the Great Plains Diagnostic Network, based on campus in Manhattan.

A timely response can make all the difference when an infestation is taking over a crop field, forest, park or home landscape, Stack said. Time is especially of the essence if the attacking species is new to an area.

Most introduced pests are accidents of nature or world trade, Stack said. They can blow in on hurricane winds from Africa. They can arrive by truck or ship in a potted plant's soil or under its leaves. These kinds of introduced species already cause billions of dollars in damage every year.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, the nation had to face the fact that intentional attacks on U.S. agriculture were equally possible. New and aggressive pest species could quickly devastate the agricultural economy and threaten U.S. food security.

That's why Extension agents and crop consultants across the United States are now learning to be "first detectors" – the ones who notice new and unusual plant problems. They're also learning how to send digital photos and specific crop information via the Internet to their regional hub in the national diagnostic network.

K-State is helping with their instruction, but Kansas' Extension agents are already up to speed. They've been using an early version of the reporting system for years. In 2001, for example, K-State used its own distance diagnosis system to identify, track and make recommendations on a wheat disease called stripe rust.

"It was very unexpected. We were able to watch it develop, and we were able to note what parts of the state it was in," said Judy O'Mara, director of K-State's plant disease testing lab. "The system allowed us to catch the disease pretty early and make the decision as to whether this was something farmers needed to take action on."

Will Baldwin, information technologist in K-State's department of communications, developed the software for the Kansas system. He was part of an interdepartmental team charged with using emerging technologies to provide backup for Extension agents.

Historically, land-grant university Extension agents are known as a local source for practical, research-based information. But they come from varied backgrounds; they may know more about families, nutrition, livestock or community development than about plants. Or, they may know more about field crops than about landscape plants.

Kansas' agents have always been able to submit samples to the insect, soils and plant disease testing labs at K-State. All Kansans have to do is ask and pay a small service fee.

But, the distance diagnosis system allowed the state's agents to augment their knowledge within hours. Even difficult diagnoses and advice typically arrived in their office within days.

Today, a greatly expanded, more sophisticated version of that Kansas software is linking land-grant universities and state departments of agriculture in all 50 states and the U.S. territories. It is combining their expertise, their labs and other facilities, and entire libraries of pest photos. As a result, help is available now even if Kansans find a pest that no one in the state has seen before.

Grant funds funneled through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research and extension division have supported the network's organizational and educational development. The universities, state agencies, experts and first detectors all volunteered to be involved.

Despite the network's technological reach, its experts still sometimes need to examine actual samples, Stack said. But, the states are sharing that work.

So far, under both testing and field conditions, the network has met its biggest diagnosis-to-recommendation challenges in less than 72 hours.

National Plant Diagnostic Network

Stack can be reached at 785-532-1388 or jstack@k-state.edu


Summer 2006