USDA website offers history of stem rust battle

Young Montana “Rust Busters” eradicated barberry plants to combat stem rust in cereal crops. The USDA Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service has a new website showcasing historic records from the federal barberry eradication program, which took place from 1918 to 1981.

A new USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website chronicles the battle to protect cereal grains from stem rust in the northern U.S.

Stem rust attacks wheat and barley and was once the most feared disease of cereal crops worldwide, according to the website. Because common barberry hosts stem rust during part of its reproductive cycle, the plant was targeted for extensive eradication efforts.

Tim Murray, a plant pathologist at Washington State University Extension, created the webpage with USDA geographer Lisa Kennaway. Murray and Kennaway collected historical information from the federal government’s common barberry eradication program between 1918 and 1981.

Orange dots on a map on the website indicate where barberry plants were eradicated. The website includes information about each location — the date of the original survey, approximate coordinates and the number of barberry plants.

The database could help locate remaining barberry plants in case of an outbreak, Murray said.

Landowner information is not included on the website. All other information is available at any county recorder’s office, Murray said.

Murray hopes to eventually include the original information card on the website.

“Each form also had a map that was hand-drawn of the property and where the barberries were found,” he said. “When we’ve gone out looking at those properties, that’s been very useful to us. Sometimes the property hasn’t changed at all, and sometimes it’s changed quite dramatically. At least we have an idea where the barberries may have been.”

Farmers may be interested in the data if stem rust has ever been a concern, or if they are curious about whether barberry was ever on their property, Murray said.

Murray estimated the cost of gathering data and putting the website together at $150,000. It was funded by grants from APHIS.

The website used records from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Other states also had barberry eradication programs, but the records aren’t available or were lost.

A strain of stem rust originally from Uganda, known as Ug99, raised concerns in 2008 about its potential to spread to the U.S.. The disease is not as large a concern as it was, Murray said. The race hasn’t spread outside Africa, and U.S. wheat breeders have developed resistant varieties.

Cereal disease experts have indicated some races in the Pacific Northwest were complex and had virulence patterns similar to Ug99, Murray said.

The constant evolution of stem rust is a concern, Murray said. But Pacific Northwest conditions are not optimal for stem rust development. Some barberry plants remain, but not in large numbers. He says it’s a relatively low risk for the region.


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