Spud farmer goes on offensive against ring rot
By John O’Connell
AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — Russell Fehringer has implemented tough new farming policies and procedures in his fight against ring rot, and constant cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and facilities will now be the norm.
While harvesting Ranger Russets last September, the eastern Idaho farmer’s workers encountered a long strip of rotten spuds. Harvest was immediately halted for cleaning and sanitizing.
Fehringer’s fears were confirmed by a positive test for bacterial ring rot — a persistent disease that has flared up in Idaho recently and can financially ruin farms. Most growers keep quiet upon finding the disease. Fehringer, however, believes producers have exacerbated the problem with their silence. He’s troubled that protocols failed to prevent tainted seed from reaching a commercial farm and hopes his experience may help other farmers avoid the same pitfalls.
“I had to restructure a bunch of my financing to stay in the business. It took me a solid three months to get back on my feet emotionally,” Fehringer said. “I run a good farm, and I just drew the short stick.”
The combination of decreased yields and unusable spuds cost Fehringer 100 sacks per affected acre. He uses a cup planter, which drops seed. Had he used a pick planter, which spears seed, he doubts he could have survived the outbreak.
He sold half his Ranger crop directly from the field to the processor, knowing storage was no longer an option, and doubled his staff to sort out rotten spuds and clean equipment.
Had Fehringer’s new practices been in place last season, he believes he would have avoided “turning a 200-acre problem into a 500-acre problem.”
From this spring forward, Fehringer is requesting health certificates documenting disease histories of seed suppliers, and he’s demanding a ring rot test with a 4,400-tuber sample size, rather than the 1,200-tuber test he accepted last season.
He’s asked seed suppliers for documentation that their trucks have been disinfected, and he rejected a seed shipment for lack of a required certified seed tag.
Fehringer now disinfects his planter, pilers and seed cutter between handing each new seed lot. Rather than piling seed by variety, he now segregates piles by seed lot to improve traceability. He’s also disinfected his storage walls, floors and ventilation systems with quaternary ammonia, making certain the chemical remains wet on surfaces for at least 10 minutes.
At least one other local farmer has heeded Fehringer’s warning and changed sanitation practices, despite not having experienced ring rot problems yet.
University of Idaho Extension storage specialist Nora Olsen said requesting health certificates from seed suppliers is a simple safeguard every commercial grower can pursue. She’s also been fielding questions daily from growers about proper sanitation techniques, evidencing that the industry is voluntarily improving practices. She said cleaning equipment with water prior to disinfecting is a critical step to wash away ring rot biofilms that form a protective shell for living bacteria inside. She emphasized sanitizing trucks is also important because some trucks haul cull potatoes.
UI Extension potato pathologist Phil Nolte said voluntary ring rot testing of seed is at an all-time high, and Idaho Crop Improvement Program has proposed new mandatory testing requirements.
“It really is a problem that can be handled with greater attention to sanitation,” Nolte said.