WSU scientist searches for seeds of success

Don Jenkins/Capital Press Lindsey du Toit, a plant pathologist at the Washington State University research station in Mount Vernon, points to a soil sample that may yield a clue to helping farmers in the Skagit Valley grow more spinach seed.

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — A scientist who investigates diseases that afflict vegetables in northwest Washington grew up in a large city in South Africa uninterested in plants.

Lindsey du Toit was attracted to biology, however. And as a second-year college student, she was required to take a class in plant pathology.

On field trips, du Toit saw large commercial farms and small-scale growers scratching out a living.

In either case, she was struck by how the health of plants can help or harm the fortunes of humans.

“It really makes an impact when you see diseases in that diversity of circumstances,” du Toit said. “It was that combination of people and science that got me interested.”

Over the next decade, that interest propelled du Toit from Durban, South Africa, to the Washington State University research center in Mount Vernon, Wash. — cities separated by 10,528 miles.

Since 2000, du Toit, 44, has worked with farmers and companies to improve small-seed production in the Skagit Valley, which yields much of the world’s seeds for spinach, cabbage and many other vegetables.

Growers praise her scientific knowledge, work ethic and enthusiasm.

“Farmers revere Lindsey,” Skagit Valley seed grower Kirby Johnson said. “She’s on top of everything all the time.”

The Skagit Valley produces dozens of commercial crops. The diversity makes farming there complex, and growers look to WSU for expertise, said Dave Hedlin, the third-generation owner of Hedlin Farms.

“We have all kinds of problems and all kinds of questions. Lindsey is one of those scientists who is willing to step in, roll up her sleeves and help,” Hedlin said. “She kind of exemplifies what you want in a scientist, as far as a farmer goes.”

Du Toit ended up majoring in plant pathology at the University of Natal-Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. As an undergraduate, she heard a visiting professor from Illinois lecture on the U.S. cooperative extension system.

Du Toit wanted to learn more about these offices devoted to helping farmers and, nudged along by a friend, approached the professor.

The contact led du Toit to the University of Illinois for graduate school. She earned master’s and doctorate degrees in plant pathology. All the while, she intended to return to South Africa.

In the meantime, du Toit took a job in 1998 at the WSU Research & Extension Center in Puyallup. She helped people identify plant diseases. Some brought in potted plants. Others were stressed out over groves of valuable trees.

She confirmed her ties to the Northwest by landing the position in Mount Vernon as director of the vegetable seed pathology team, a small group of research assistants and graduate students.

Rather than just identifying diseases, her job became to find the cure.

She came with a handicap, however. She had expertise in neither Northwest vegetables nor seeds, of any type.

She looked to farmers and seed company representatives to teach her. “I think that turned out to be very beneficial, but I did it out of desperation,” du Toit said. “I was like a sponge.”

In Illinois, corn was the fodder for du Toit’s master’s thesis and doctorate dissertation. At Mount Vernon, she encountered a different type of farming.

“It didn’t take long to bring her up to speed,” Johnson said. “She forgot the corn smut she was an expert in when she came here and dived into spinach.”

Seed crops grown in the Skagit Valley can have a high return. One acre can yield enough seed to grow 50 million pounds of cabbage.

But the risks are high, too. That’s partly because seed crops are in the ground for so long, du Toit said. “Which means there is more time for things to go wrong.”

Du Toit said her research has no finish line. Pathogens arise, humans react and pathogens counteract.

Her research projects include finding ways to curb fusarium wilt, the scourge of spinach seed growers. As part of her research, du Toit has stored in a greenhouse piles of dirt clumped in about two dozen paper containers the right size for a small order of fries.

Each handful of dirt has been treated in a particular way. The hope is that one will yield clues on how to cope with the fungus, which inhabits the ground long after the seed is harvested, making the field unsuitable for spinach for a decade or more.

Du Toit hopes to shorten that period. If the time can be halved, perhaps spinach seed production can be doubled in the Skagit Valley.

Johnson, who grows beet and spinach seeds, said a rotation schedule shorter than 10 years for spinach is trouble.

“The target is to get to five or six years. Are they going to get there? I don’t know. If we do, it’s going to be thanks in part to Lindsey,” he said.

Besides advising growers, conducting research and teaching graduate students, du Toit speaks at conferences around the world.

She has no plans to take up farming.

“It scares me when I look at the risk a farmer takes on,” she said. “I think there are a lot more secure jobs.”

This article was first published on Sept. 12, 2014.

Lindsey du Toit

Hometown: Durban, South Africa

Age: 44

Family: Single

Education: Bachelor’s degree University of Natal-Pietermaritzburg; master’s degree and doctorate University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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