Grant Helps Northwest Potato Farmers Go Green

Washington State University entomologist Bill Snyder has received a $2.05 million USDA grant to help potato farmers reduce their use of insecticides in the Pacific Northwest.

“Currently, potato farmers are between a rock and a hard place,” Snyder said. “They are going to have to learn to produce a blemish-free crop while at the same time using very few pesticides.” On the one hand, Snyder said, even slight insect or disease damage to potatoes can lead to an entire crop being rejected by a processor. On the other hand, large buyers of potato products have begun to require farmers to pass “Sustainability Audits” demonstrating that they are using as few pesticides as possible.

The USDA Risk Avoidance and Mitigation grant allows Snyder and his multi-disciplinary research and extension team to investigate low-spray techniques for managing insects that transmit plant pathogens, as well as other insect pests of potato.

“Potato growers in Washington and the Pacific Northwest produce the highest yields in the world,” said Andy Jensen, Director of Research for the Washington State Potato Commission. “The region leads in potato production for both the fresh market and for processing. Potatoes contribute $9 billion dollars a year to the U.S. economy. In recent years our potato growers have faced mounting pressure from major buyers to accelerate their adoption of ‘green’ approaches to pest management. Fortunately, the PNW industry is very progressive and sees this as an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage.”

“Potato production is affected by numerous pests and pathogens and the proposed research effort brings together scientists from across disciplines, organizations and state lines,” said Hanu Pappu, chair of the WSU Department of Plant Pathology and a co-principal investigator on the grant. “This is another example of the leadership role played by WSU researchers in building research and extension teams to address and solve complex agricultural issues.”

Snyder and his team are using a three-tiered research and education approach to deal with pest control in potato.

The first tier involves developing a multi-state sampling network to detect aphids and leafhoppers and their associated plant pathogens, so that farmers know precisely when their fields are at risk of attack. Then, sprays can be carefully timed to hit the pests when they are most vulnerable.

In the second tier, the team will develop a detailed understanding of which beneficial predatory insects are contributing to natural pest control. They will do this by searching for the DNA of pests in the stomachs of predatory insects collected from potato fields.

“It’s a little like an episode of ‘CSI,’ but here we’re using DNA to track down which good bugs have killed which bad bugs,” Snyder said.

The third tier involves developing an improved understanding of how growers decide when and where to apply pesticides, and also creating the means for growers to analyze the economic effectiveness of new low-spray strategies.

“Of course, none of this will work if growers can’t turn a healthy profit,” said Snyder.

Results and integrated pest management recommendations will be disseminated to growers through an innovative extension program that emphasizes hands-on learning and in-field demonstration, in addition to Web and print publications.

The principal investigators on the RAMP grant include entomologists, virologists, extension educators, economists and sociologists from WSU, the University of Idaho, Oregon State University and the USDA-ARS. The research will be directed by an advisory panel of industry representatives including the potato commissions of Oregon, Idaho and Washington.