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Published March 31, 2014, 09:59 AM

White mold research at risk

Like many farmers in the Upper Midwest, Jason Mewes has battled white mold for years. The disease, also known as sclerotinia, afflicts some of the most widely grown crops in this part of the world.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Like many farmers in the Upper Midwest, Jason Mewes has battled white mold for years. The disease, also known as sclerotinia, afflicts some of the most widely grown crops in this part of the world.

“I’ve seen how much damage it can do,” says Mewes, a Colgate, N.D., farmer and president of the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association.

So Mewes and other area commodity group officials are concerned by a proposal to slash fiscal year 2015 funding for the National Sclerotinia Initiative from $1.5 million to $500,000.

The Initiative, led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, supports 20 different projects targeting white mold’s threat to sunflowers, soybeans, canola, edible dry beans, chickpeas, lentils and dry peas. The initiative began in 2002 and has made considerable progress in the fight against white mold, according to information on the website of the U.S. Canola Association.

John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, says his group is concerned about the proposed funding cut. He and his organization’s board members recently went to Washington, D.C., where they made the case for sclerotinia funding.

It’s unclear what led to the decision to cut funding for the initiative. But President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget included less funding, Sandbakken says.

It’s also unclear whether funding might be restored. Sandbakken says a clear indication of that probably won’t be available until early summer, when Obama’s budget proposal is further along in the approval process.

Officials with the ARS’s media relations office in Washington, D.C., referred questions about the proposed sclerotinia research funding cut to USDA’s communications office. A phone call and email to USDA seeking more information were unsuccessful.

Much of the National Sclerotinia Institute’s work is conducted at or through the ARS’s Red River Valley Agricultural Research Center in Fargo, N.D. North Dakota is the nation’s leading producer of sunflowers, canola and dry beans and an increasingly prominent producer of soybeans.

Bill Kemp, director of the Fargo research center, directed questions to the ARS media relations office in Washington, D.C.

But he says he’s proud of research conducted through the initiative.

Tough to beat

Sclerotinia, a soil-borne fungus, causes diseases known as white mold, stalk rot and head rot on a wide range of crops, particularly soybeans, sunflowers, canola and dry beans. Both yields and quality can be hurt badly.

Sclerotinia has caused as much as $252 million in annual losses, collectively, to sunflowers, soybeans, dry beans, canola and pulse crops, according to the U.S. Canola Association.

Though researchers have made big strides, sclerotinia remains a major threat, Mewes and others say.

Part of the problem is that sclerotinia can remain in the soil for many years. It also can produce spores that spread for miles.

Sclerotinia “continues to be a very difficult pathogen to control,” according to the ARS website.

Sandbakken called sclerotinia a “complicated disease to get a handle on. That (reducing research funding) can only stop the progress that’s been made or minimize it greatly.”

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