SHELLEY, Idaho-Potato growers in Eastern Idaho are questioning the effectiveness of the USDA's efforts to contain the pale cyst nematode, a small wormlike pest that endangers the state's potato export markets.
Several U.S. trading partners, including Canada, Mexico and Korea quickly banned Idaho potatoes after the pest was discovered in seven fields in Eastern Idaho in early 2006.
Most of those markets were quickly restored after the USDA established a quarantine area in Bingham and Bonneville counties and began a rigorous soil sampling program along with eradication efforts.
Officials were optimistic about their progress early this spring. Initial tests showed no viable nematode populations in three of nine fields found to be infested. Those fields were quarantined, fumigated with methyl bromide in the spring and Telone in the fall and planted with a cover crop at the government's expense.
"We had all kinds of good news. We had actually surveyed and released over 30,000 acres in Idaho from federal regulation," said Brian Marschman, state plant health director with APHIS. "That freed up all of those sanitation requirements from all of those individuals."
In March, however, testing discovered a 10th infested field in the area, and an 11th field was found in August. Federal officials regulate all fields tended by any grower whose equipment is linked by Farm Service Agency records dating back a decade to a quarantined field.
Grower Bryan Searle, whose fields had been removed from regulation more than three years ago after repeatedly testing as free of nematodes, was affected by the field discovered in March.
"We have to plan a longer harvest," Searle said. "When we have to wash after each field, that process can take four to six hours."
Currently, 1,425 acres are considered infested and 5,989 acres are regulated, Marschman said. The government should be ready to notify farmers affected by the 11th field, which will have ramifications for thousands of acres, within the next two weeks.
Searle said the government is likely investing resources on a lost cause, and he noted other types of nematodes that can be found in every potato field pose a greater threat to crop yields. Ultimately, he believes nematodes will be deregulated and treated like other crop pests, and a more effective way to gauge the problem would be random testing of all Idaho potato fields.
"This is not a nematode that just showed up last week, last year or 10 years ago. This is something that has been here for years and years and years," Searle said. "As they're trying to regulate this now, what about all of those years that equipment and pickups moved freely from field to field?"
Gary Farmer, an agronomist with Bingham Cooperative who has worked with regulated growers, said it's time government officials consider deregulating the fields.
"I just don't believe containment is 100 percent possible."
Marschman said Idaho has tested 350,000 dirt samples from fields throughout the state. The infested fields are all located within close proximity to each other, Marschman said.
"It's not like we've found infested fields in Pocatello or Magic Valley or Treasure Valley," Marschman said. "The scientists tell us it's for sure a very unhealthy population, and they believe that means it's a young population."
A five-year review for the Idaho pale cyst nematode program, which according to APHIS cost $6.7 million to administer in fiscal 2010, is scheduled for next February.
SOURCE: John O'Connell, Capital Press