Battle To Contain Wheat Fungus Being Launched In Arizona Fields

A fungus spotted during a routine seed inspection has prompted a government mobilization at a cost of millions of dollars to prevent the problem from spreading out of the Southwest.

Before harvesting of Arizona’s 160,000 acres of wheat begins at the end of the month, hundreds of government workers will begin collecting 4,000 samples for microscopic analysis by lab technicians, including university graduate students and biology teachers temporarily hired by the state.

A similar program will be mounted in California’s Imperial and Riverside counties where the U.S. Department of Agriculture has ordered wheat quarantines. All of Arizona is under a March 25 wheat quarantine.

The target is Karnal bunt, a fungus that is not harmful to humans or animals but that in concentrations can stunt wheat’s growth and produce a fishlike smell that makes the grain unpalatable.

While Arizona’s $47 million wheat crop last year provided only 0.5 percent of the bushels grown nationwide, much of the state’s crop is used for seed elsewhere. The importance of the nation’s wheat production and exports led the USDA to give top priority to keeping the disease from spreading to North Dakota and other major wheat-producing states.

The result is a sampling and testing program that will be done by 360 federal and state workers, including 230 temporary state hires. The program will cost the federal government alone $24.7 million this year.

“This is going to be a five-year program, so there will be more,” said Ed Curlett, a spokesman for the USDA’s Karnal bunt task force. “In order to eradicate this disease, we have to be in the eradication mode.”

The fungus, named for a city in northern India, has been found in that country along with Afghanistan, Iran and Mexico.

It first was found in the United States on March 4 during a State Agricultural Laboratory inspection for purity and germination of durum wheat seed from a farm near Gila Bend, about 50 miles southwest of Phoenix. The discovery by state plant pathologist Ron Ykema was confirmed by USDA scientists and announced March 8.

Since then, it has been found in wheat across southern Arizona and in parts of California, New Mexico and Texas, apparently as a result of contaminated seed shipped from Arizona.

It’s not known how the disease reached Arizona. Mexico has Karnal bunt, but the United States bans wheat imports from Mexico for that reason.

The 4,000 infested acres in four New Mexico counties - Dona Ana, Hidalgo, Luna and Sierra - and two counties in far western Texas were in early stages of growth and were plowed under. The government paid farmers $300 per acre in compensation, including plowdown expenses.

Plowdown is not an option in Arizona or California, where the crops are closer to harvest and plowing under the wheat would preserve Karnal bunt spores in the soil, Curlett said. “That’d just make it worse. They can live in the soil for five years.”

Growers have complained the statewide quarantine imposed March 25 is too stringent, and that the USDA has not dealt with the issue of compensation.

“Many of us are feeling right now that we’ve found a mosquito in our living room and we’re running around with a sledge hammer trying to kill that mosquito. We’re doing more damage than good,” said Ken Evans, a Somerton farmer who is president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, an industry group.

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