April 1, 2005 | By: Laura Skillman
PRINCETON, Ky.

Watchful eyes keep check on plants growing throughout the United States, ever vigilant for some new pest that has somehow made its way into the country or region. Those most likely to first encounter exotic pests in the field are county Extension agents, crop scouts and Master Gardeners.

In Kentucky more than 75 percent of county agents already have undergone training to be so-called “First Detectors,” which is a program that trains people to recognize and respond to exotic pest problems such as soybean rust. Those who complete the training are eligible for certification as a First Detector and placed on a registry as part of a National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN).

This year’s University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s integrated pest management school provided the training to the public for the first time.

The network is designed to increase the capacity of the agricultural infrastructure to quickly detect and respond to exotic, threatening diseases, insect pests and weeds. It provides information as well as receives updates on exotic or threatening plant-related problems. The training is conducted by Paul Vincelli, plant pathologist with the UK College of Agriculture and a member of the national network.

There are four ways an exotic pest can make its way into the United States - naturally, accidentally, deliberately or by someone engineering a toxic microbial colonist or plant, Vincelli said. Soybean rust, first discovered in this country last fall, is believed to have come into the country either with Hurricane Ivan or naturally. But the most common way is accidentally through trade in plants and plant products, he said.

“Crops and forests are at risk from natural and accidental introductions as well as through deliberate actions,” Vincelli said.

That’s why early detection and having lots of eyes being ever vigilant is important to reducing the risk, he said. First Detectors are a key to that vigilance.

A key to being a good watcher is to know what the common diseases, insects and weeds are in your area. Extension agents are well trained in this area as are many crop consultants and Master Gardeners. It also is important to know the new threats. This information is provided by alerts from the NPDN.

“These are the people who are really out in the field more than we are,” Vincelli said.

Henderson County Extension agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources Mike Smith went through the recent training. He said having Extension agents and agribusiness professionals participating in the program is important to its success and the safety of the nation’s forests and crop fields.

“Soybean rust is going to allow us to see how we respond to these things,” he said. “We are going to be tested, and it is critical we are all on the same page. It will require some quick decisions, and this training provides us with the understanding of the proper steps to be taken. In the case of soybean rust, the key will be getting the information quickly to producers so they can make proper management decisions.”

First Detector training included information on the proper protocol for reporting possible finds. The samples are to be taken to the county Extension office, where often the problem can be identified. If it cannot be identified by an Extension agent then it is forwarded on, in proper packaging, to one of UK’s two plant diagnostic labs along with the paperwork detailing where the pest was discovered. If it is believed to be an exotic, or new, pest then the specimen is forwarded on to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab for final identification. The process is designed to move quickly from one step to the next.

If an exotic is discovered it is up to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and state regulatory officials to determine whether the pest can be contained, eradicated or if it is “out of the box,” Vincelli said.

“Scouting and finding it early are vital because we have the best chance to eradicate it if we find it early,” he said. “If we can’t eradicate it, then early detection gives us more time to develop pest control measures. The early detection is a fundamental way to reduce agriculture’s vulnerability to exotic disease.”

Contact: 

Writer: Laura Skillman 270-365-7541 ext. 278

Contacts: Paul Vincelli 859-257-7445, ext. 80722
Mike Smith 270-826-8387