The results are in. Maine potato farmers saved an estimated $17 million of their 2008 crop from potential threats such as late blight with help from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Potato Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program.
“We identified weather conditions that were extremely conducive for the development of potato late blight,” UMaine Cooperative Extension Executive Director John Rebar says. “This information, coupled with the field surveys conducted by our IPM scouts, resulted in the potato industry being much better informed about how high the potential was for a serious outbreak of potato late blight.”
Potato late blight is a fungal disease that can be devastating to potatoes and also can affect tomatoes. It can damage stored tubers when secondary infection by soft rot bacteria spreads. Until stocks stored farther down in the pile are reached and inspected, months after harvest, it’s difficult to tell if late blight successfully was conquered.
“Wet, cool conditions such as those experienced during summer 2008 created an ideal environment for the spread of the disease,” says James Dwyer, a UMaine Extension crops specialist.
Potatoes are the top agricultural commodity in Maine, where nearly 60,000 acres are devoted to the crop that has a total economic value of more than $500 million and employs about 6,000 people. Since 1977, UMaine Cooperative Extension’s Potato Integrated Pest Management Program has worked closely with growers and processors to maximize the value of the crop and protect the industry from damage due to disease and predation from insects and other pests.
“We coordinate a statewide network of electronic weather stations, and survey 100 potato fields on a weekly basis for weeds, insects and diseases,” says Jim Dill, a UMaine Extension professor and pest management specialist. “The resulting data helps our IPM scientists track potential pest outbreaks and provide growers with current information on specific and timely treatments in order to minimize pesticide applications and maximize potato yield.”
The information from the field scouting and electronic weather stations is entered into a Pest Management Hotline, a voice mail system operating on a toll-free telephone line. Clients have access to the information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
During the growing season, information on the Pest Management Hotline is updated twice weekly; more frequently if conditions warrant. From June 15-Sept. 15 last year, the hotline received 2,088 calls. Potato growers also access weekly pest alerts on the Web during the cropping season. The site containing information about insects and diseases, fact sheets and field guides received almost 250,000 hits last year.
Comments from growers, as well as surveys conducted in previous years, indicated two to four applications of fungicide were saved per grower per year, says Steve Johnson, a UMaine Extension crops specialist. “This was directly as a result of the information and recommendations provided by the hotline,” he says.
Of the respondents, 95 percent reported saving money by reducing pesticide applications.