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Soybean growers prepare for possible arrival of rust disease

(Tuesday, March 23, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Associated Press, 03/22/04: MINNEAPOLIS -- Experts say it's only a matter of time -- several months to years -- before a wind-borne fungus called Asian soybean rust invades the United States after ravaging crops in Brazil, Africa, India and elsewhere in the past decade.

For many Minnesota farmers, another threat to soybean crops a year after aphids destroyed 4 million acres dampens the usual spring planting optimism.

``We regard soybean rust right now as the single greatest threat to agriculture,'' said Geir Friisoe, manager of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's plant-protection section.

The fungus could cause losses of 10 to 40 percent in Midwestern soybean fields, said Jim Kurle, a soybean pathologist at the University of Minnesota. Even if they apply fungicides, farmers could still see damage, he said. Rust could change prices and planting decisions for the state's soybean farmers, who last year enjoyed $1.3 billion in sales as the nation's third-largest producers of the crop.

``It's really going to change the way people manage soybeans,'' Kurle said. ``They are going to have an added cost they never considered before.''

Rust attacks the soybean plant's leaves, causing them to drop early, inhibiting pod setting and reducing yield.

Meanwhile, soybean prices soared to a 15-year high this week and several farmers said they're not ready to change their planting intentions because the disease isn't here yet.

Prices have risen to nearly $9.80 a bushel in Chicago as supplies tightened because of drought and feed processors' demand for soybeans.

Should the disease spread into the heartland, Minnesota farmers would face hefty costs for spraying fungicides on top of pesticides for aphids. It generally costs $10 to $11 to spray an acre for aphids, and $20 to $50 an acre for multiple applications of spray for Asian rust, said Ron Heck, president of the American Soybean Association.

``Rust has the potential to devastate the U.S. soybean industry,'' said Heck, who farms near Perry, Iowa.

He and others in commodity groups are uniting with government and academic experts to battle the pending invasion, which comes at a bad time for soybean growers. Minnesota farmers last summer faced big losses from an unprecedented aphid +infestation+, along with a crop-withering drought and worms called nematodes that attack soybean roots.

The state's average number of soybean bushels fell to 31 harvested per acre, down from a lush harvest in 2002, when farmers reaped 45 bushels per acre. Overall, the damage cost an estimated $280 million in losses statewide in the crop.

To battle the Asian rust threat, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is seeking emergency exemptions from the Environmental Protection Agency to apply fungicides usually restricted to other kinds of plants, Friisoe said.

Working with the University of Minnesota, state agriculture officials also are building a network that would quickly notify farmers should the disease arrive, as well as train extension educators, crop consultants and farmers in how to scout for the disease.

Heck said no other threat has come close to the seriousness of Asian rust.

``If you're unable to spray in a timely manner, you could lose up to 90 percent of your crop,'' he said.