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Pink mold plagues Washington wheat fields, surprising farmers and a WSU expert

UPDATED: Fri., March 31, 2017, 3:56 p.m.

Winter wheat damaged by pink snow mold, a type of fungus more commonly found on turf grass, are seen in a field in southeastern Washington. The pink-tinged mold had been bleached by sunlight. (WSU News)
Winter wheat damaged by pink snow mold, a type of fungus more commonly found on turf grass, are seen in a field in southeastern Washington. The pink-tinged mold had been bleached by sunlight. (WSU News)

As snow melted away in the first glimmers of spring sunshine, wheat farmers in southeastern Washington were surprised to find their crops damaged by an unusual culprit: pink snow mold.

The discovery also surprised Tim Murray, a Washington State University plant pathologist who has studied the fungus for nearly four decades. The pink mold, caused by the fungus Microdochium nivale, is more commonly found on turf grass.

“Golf course managers in a lot of the northern areas will tell you that they’ve had issues with pink snow mold on their courses,” Murray said.

About two weeks ago, Murray met with more than a dozen winter wheat growers in the town of Prescott, near Walla Walla, to address their concerns about the pink mold that has threatened to take a bite out of their profits.

For what appears to be the first time, the fungus has been detected in wheat fields in Walla Walla, Whitman and Columbia counties.

It’s probably the result of a warm November followed by an abnormally long period of snow cover, which created a more hospitable environment for the fungus to grow, Murray said.

The cold-loving organism is more commonly found in the higher elevations of north-central Washington, where snow blankets the ground for 100 days or more, he said.

It’s too early to say how much the crop damage will cost growers, or if the fungus will become a long-term problem, he said.

A bigger problem is the recurring epidemic of stripe rust, another type of fungus that can decimate up to 90 percent of wheat yields, Murray said. He works with wheat breeders to create varieties that can fend off such infections.


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