Where Science Meets the Public

Plant Pathology Assistant Professor Madeleine Smith’s work at the Northwest Research and Outreach Center in Crookston, MN focuses on finding ways to control Fusarium head blight, a disease that not only affects farmers’ yields, but also produces a toxin harmful to humans if consumed. However Smith’s efforts don’t stop in the lab and research plots. As a Minnesota Extension Small Grains and Canola Pathologist, Smith brings her research-based information to farmers to help them more successfully manage disease in their fields.

The Scientific Research

Fusarium head blight (FHB) is a fungal disease that affects small grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye. This disease is prevalent throughout all of the cereal grain growing regions of the world and is a major problem for farmers across Minnesota. When the FHB pathogen infects the developing grain spike, it can cause the grains to be shriveled or small in size, and this  results in significant yield losses for farmers.

Additionally, FHB infection causes grain contamination, as the fungus can produce a mycotoxin that is known to cause nausea in humans and animals, and may cause livestock to refuse to eat their feed, resulting in poor weight gain of these animals. Since barley is a key component to making beer, mycotoxin contamination also causes barley to be unacceptable for use in the malting and brewing industries.

The spread of FHB is a concern for farmers across the state since all varieties of barley available to farmers currently are susceptible to the disease. According to Smith, there have been some widespread epidemics of FHB across the region which have shaken the confidence of wheat and barley farmers, making these crops a less attractive source of income especially when compared to the economics and ease of growing corn and soybeans in the region. As a result there has been a significant decline in the amount of acreage of wheat (2,600,000 acres planted in 1989 to only 1,500,000 in 2014) and barley (925,000 acres planted in 1989 to only 75,000 in 2014) grown in Minnesota.

Closeup of wheatSmith’s research aims to help regain farmers’ trust in these crops which are important not only to the Minnesota economy, but also are an integral part of diversifying crop rotations for disease and nutrient management.

“These small grains are key crops in terms of rotation with soybeans, sugar beets and some of the other important crops grown in Minnesota. We really want to see those acreages go back up if we can, so part of that is building people's confidence in their ability to manage the disease, as well as providing them with varieties that are more resistant to FHB,” says Smith.

Working with Professors Kevin Smith, barley breeder, and Jim Anderson, wheat breeder, from the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, Smith and her research team evaluate which varieties perform best when exposed to high levels of disease in a field by measuring the yield, as well as the level of mycotoxins present.

“It’s important that we measure varieties that have high yields as well as low mycotoxin accumulation," says Smith. "It’s a complex interaction and just because a variety has a high yield, that doesn’t mean it will experience low mycotoxin accumulation and vice versa. We want to provide farmers information about those varieties that will have both."

Since those varieties will have better but not complete resistance to the disease, Smith also wants to inform farmers about the best ways they can manage the disease through holistic management principles, in addition to resistant varieties, to facilitate long-term solutions to the disease.

Key to effectively managing the disease is when farmers should apply fungicide--something Smith is investigating. Traditionally it has been recommended that fungicides be applied when plants are starting to flower, which leaves only a two or three day window to apply, depending on weather conditions. This short time window makes it difficult for farmers to apply fungicides to all of their fields during this pivotal time.

“As a result of this we’re looking to see how we affect the control of the disease if farmers spray earlier or later, so that we can extend the window of opportunity and still get reasonably good control of the disease, and give farmers more spraying options,” Smith says.

Ultimately Smith hopes to give farmers the research-based information that will allow them to successfully manage the disease.

“We want farmers to know that even though the disease will probably always be present in fields, it is important for them to know that there are ways to manage it effectively,” Smith says.

Getting Science to the Public

Once the research data is gathered, Smith is constantly looking to find new ways to get that information to farmers as a part of her Extension program.

“It’s not effective if the science never gets out beyond our research plot. It has to get out to the farmers in the field to be of any use. I see my Extension role as a way I can build a bridge between science and the public, and help farmers improve their operations,” Smith says.

As a part of her Extension program Smith travels around Minnesota, parts of North Dakota and Canada, visiting farmers on their operations and talking to them about the latest information that comes out of both her variety trials and fungicide application timing research, and answering any questions they might have.

Plant Pathology Assistant Professor Madeleine SmithSmith also participates in Extension educational events such as the Field School for Ag Professionals, an event aimed at providing information about emerging disease issues to agricultural professionals such as agronomists, crop production retailers, seed sellers, consultants, Extension educators, agriculture government agency personnel, farm managers and summer field scouts.

As Smith believes that face-to-face meetings are a key way to get messages across and create understanding, she also tours Minnesota each growing season to attend local gatherings of farmers at the many on-farm small grain variety trial locations to provide updates on disease management research from her program and those of colleagues.

Additionally her program reaches digital audiences through a robust web presence. Smith publishes Extension fact sheets outlining the latest research-based information for farmers, and also posts articles to the Extension crop news website and electronic newsletter, reaching farmers throughout Minnesota each month.

“I really like to see all the projects that we are involved in and how that is being utilized by farmers to help them improve their operations. I get to see all the hard work I have put in help others do their job more effectively. I really firmly believe in science doing good and being able to help people, so when I see that happening it’s really rewarding for me.”