If the LSU AgCenter were like Time and had a “person of the year,” that individual would be Ray Schneider for 2004.
Schneider, a plant pathology researcher, discovered the presence of a soybean disease new to this country at the perfect time, so the agricultural industry could gear up to prevent potentially catastrophic losses.
The disease, spread by wind-borne spores, is Asian soybean rust. It has been in Asia for a century and had recently spread to Africa. In 2000, it was found for the first time in the Western Hemisphere in Brazil. Schneider’s discovery on Nov. 6, 2004, was the first in North America.
Asian soybean rust is feared by farmers because it is extremely difficult to detect in early stages. The symptoms start on the bottom leaves, hidden from view. When not found early, the disease has been known to destroy entire fields because it can spread like wildfire.
If Schneider had not unexpectedly come across the disease when he did, after the 2004 harvest, then the rust could have severely damaged the 2005 crop.
Schneider, who had been trained just a few months earlier on Asian soybean rust detection, saw the suspicious leaves in a production field on the LSU AgCenter’s Ben Hur Research Farm. He had been giving a tour to a visiting Illinois farmer.
But Schneider is not the only hero in this story. Many people contributed to this remarkable call-to-arms. Most notably is Clayton Hollier, extension plant pathologist and the southern region’s principal investigator for the pest detection network.
When Schneider returned to his laboratory from the field on that fateful day, he called Hollier. This was on a Saturday evening. Hollier met him at the lab and helped prepare samples to send to a national laboratory in Beltsville, Md., where the DNA could be officially confirmed as Asian soybean rust and not one of several look-alikes.
Fortuitously, Hollier and colleagues had just two weeks before finished a response and action plan in case Asian soybean rust was found in Louisiana.
“We knew it was coming. But we didn’t think it would be here for maybe another couple of years,” Hollier said.
Hollier and David Boethel, vice chancellor for research, followed the plan and notified key people, including the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Then, everyone anxiously awaited the lab test results, which takes several days.
“It was like waiting for a baby to be born,” Schneider said.
Finally, early on a Wednesday morning (Nov. 10, 2004), APHIS top officials in Washington, D.C., said yes it’s rust, called a press conference to alert the world, and dispatched a team to Baton Rouge to figure out the next step.
The group included an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because of its destructive nature, Asian soybean rust is on a list of substances that could be spread purposely by bioterrorists.
And this was the main objective of the team – to find out how the rust got here. The LSU AgCenter’s plan provided the group with a framework for working through the dilemma in a systematic, scientific manner. Though the scientists believed the August hurricanes spread it, they had to prove that. They dispersed in groups to look for evidence within a 100-mile radius of Baton Rouge.
Suspicious samples were sent to Beltsville, and early the next week, rust was confirmed in several locations that did indeed match the path of the hurricane winds.
Because of the timely discovery, American soybean farmers are on alert to comb their fields for any symptoms of the disease and make sure they have enough fungicide available to fight it, if found. They also can factor in the cost of those fungicides, which are among the most expensive farm inputs, should they need them.
Forewarned is fore-armed. And that’s what America’s farmers are – thanks to Ray Schneider and the LSU AgCenter.
Linda Foster Benedict
(This article was published in the winter 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture)