No Fooling

Technology helps growers deal with mother nature

Scientists and farmers often find it difficult to outsmart Mother Nature — or sometimes even understand her. Just when conditions look good for a high-quality bumper crop of vegetables, diseases, insects, weeds, or bad weather can suddenly create a crisis that takes a drastic toll on crop yield or quality. The stakes are incredibly high in Colorado's dry bean and onion industries, worth an estimated $50 million a year each. Both are affected by numerous diseases, as are potatoes, another popular Colorado crop.

But new tools are at hand to swing the balance in favor of producers. Plant pathology professor Howard Schwartz and other Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station scientists have devised a three-fold program to combat crop diseases by drawing on biology, computers, and information technology.

The program begins with biology — selecting the proper variety of crop species. Several years' research at test plots around the state have helped Schwartz and other Colorado State scientists identify pathogens that survive the rigors of winter. These pathogens and the diseases they trigger are likely candidates to cause problems for growers. This knowledge is very useful in selecting and developing crop varieties that exhibit genetic disease resistance, giving growers an important head start in producing healthy plants. Genetic resistance also reduces the need to use chemical sprays as a precautionary measure, lowering overall chemical use.

The next step is to try to understand what types of conditions constitute a warning for different types of threats. For this phase, Schwartz and his colleagues have turned to computers. "We've developed and modified computer models that predict from research and past history many of the likely crop-growing problems producers may encounter," says Schwartz. "That information is combined with regional information about current conditions to help producers, crop consultants, and aerial applicators make timely, more accurate management decisions."

Feedback about current growing, pest, and weather conditions provided by producers, Cooperative Extension professionals, and agricultural consultants is extremely important to the success of this phase, Schwartz says. Another vital component is the daily weather information received from COAGMET, a network of remote electronic weather monitoring stations that retrieves time-sensitive temperature, moisture, and humidity data from sites throughout the state (see story).

Finally, Schwartz' program must quickly get accurate information back to the producers. Besides the usual newsletters, press releases, field days, and meetings, Schwartz delivers information to a national satellite service for farmers called Data Transmission Network, or DTN. Several thousand Colorado producers subscribe to this service, which allows them to download information instantly through their own satellite receivers. In addition, Schwartz and his colleagues present information on the Internet, and on separate telephone hotline message systems for bean, onion, and potato growers that deliver up-to-date information concerning potential growing problems. These systems also record information about developing and ongoing problems reported by growers and crop consultants.

"Continued research combined with efficient technology and fast reaction will help vegetable producers respond quickly to Mother Nature," says Schwartz. "And that translates into a reasonable chance for Colorado growers to profit and for consumers to continue to buy prime quality produce at the prices they have come to expect."