CORVALLIS, Ore. – Wheat farmers in Western Oregon may see a loss in yield this season due to a disease that is spreading through the Willamette Valley.
Researchers at Oregon State University say “sharp eyespot,” a fungal disease, is infecting wheat fields throughout the entire valley.
“About 2-3 weeks ago, everything should have been green if it was healthy,” said Chris Mundt, a professor of plant pathology, referring to the heads of the wheat. “But there were a lot of fields where the heads were turning white prematurely. And what that means is you don’t get as much yield and the kernels can actually become shriveled and have a lower quality.”
Usually, Mundt says the wheat stems should be solid yellow or white. Instead, infected wheat are showing darkened stems with dark lesions at the bottom.
“There are less nutrients and less water getting up into the plant,” he said. “And so that’s what causes this so-called whitehead symptom, where the crops actually start to mature earlier than they should.”
Mundt says the disease has appeared in the Valley before, but only in small amounts. He thinks the dry and warm conditions this spring most likely helped the fungus spread.
The wheat’s weaker stems also make them more susceptible to falling over in the field when it gets windy, which is causing issues for farmers who are getting ready to harvest.
“They’re going to have to run all of the straw through the combine,” Mundt said. “And you don’t get as much grain into the combine that way, and it’s a pretty big wear and tear on the machinery as well. You have a farmer who might have spent $300,000 for a combine. He doesn’t want to be running all that straw through it to get to the grain.”
Mundt says the fungus does not pose any health danger to the grain. However, Mundt expects farmers in the Valley to lose an average of ten percent of their yield this year.
“One of the big problems with a crop like wheat is the profit margin isn’t very big,” he said. “So any loss is actually a really big deal for a wheat grower.”
Originally, farmers thought the disease was what’s known as “take-all,” a disease that can destroy a huge percentage of the crop. Mundt says though the sharp eyespot is a nuisance for farmers, the situation could be worse.
But Mundt says even though he hopes sharp eyespot won’t return next year, he says there is a possible solution for growers. OSU scientists developed a new breed of wheat called the “Bobtail.”
“See they’re shiny and you can’t crush them with your fingers the way you could the other ones,” he said as he pushed on the stems. “So I’m pretty excited about that – that this variety has fabulous yield and a really great package of resistance to many different diseases.”
He says the variety is becoming more and more available to growers.