April 20, 2007

U.S. Agency to Help Wipe Out Potato Pest

BOISE, Idaho -- Federal aid is on the way to help Idaho potato growers battle a microscopic worm that was discovered in fields last year and blamed for the closure of four export markets for fresh potatoes.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns on Thursday approved $10.7 million in emergency funding to help growers eradicate the potato cyst nematode. The pest is not considered harmful to humans, but can shrink yields by as much as 80 percent.

"This is huge for the Idaho potato industry and specifically for our growers," said Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission. "This is exactly what we needed."

The worm was initially discovered during routine testing last April in a field in southeastern Idaho. Additional testing led to a quarantine on six nearby fields, an area spanning about 10,000 acres.

After the initial discovery, all fresh U.S. potato imports were banned by Japan, followed by South Korea, Canada and Mexico. The discovery and market bans caused alarm among growers and industry leaders in Idaho, the nation's leading potato producer.

Idaho farmers produce about one-third of all the potatoes in the United States, and in 2005, the most recent figures available, Idaho fields yielded 12.5 billion pounds valued at $700 million to farmers.

The federal money will be used to inject a pesticide in the soil of restricted fields, which will then be covered with plastic, creating a layer of intense heat that researchers hope will begin wiping out the worm. The strategy was developed in January by a team of scientists and experts from around the world.

The regimen may have to be repeated for as long as six years before the worm is eliminated, said Mike Cooper, deputy administrator at the Idaho Department of Agriculture.

"The big thing is we feel like we've caught this early enough and isolated it to give us a good chance at getting rid of it," Cooper said. "If we'd have caught it later we'd be going down some different roads right now."

Scientists say the worm does not embed itself inside the tuber, but instead feeds on vines and roots, draining valuable nutrients and stunting plant growth.

Last fall, Johanns authorized $13 million in emergency spending for testing, enabling researchers to analyze more than 38,000 soil samples from across the state.

The swift reaction and eradication strategy has helped ease concerns abroad, officials say. Earlier this year, Canada and Mexico lifted bans on fresh potatoes, and last week Idaho growers delivered 10 truckloads to Mexico, Muir said.

Japan remains closed to fresh potatoes, but accepts frozen products; exports to South Korea are also complicated by trade issues, Muir said.

"It hurt us in that these four markets shut down immediately," Muir said. "But overall, it's hard to say if there was a net loss because we managed to redirect those potatoes domestically.

"I've said from the get go that by the end of this crisis, our foreign customers will have more confidence than ever before because of the way we've handled this," he said.

Officials say another round of testing for the nematode has already started in some fields across the state.