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New Mexico State University

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NMSU Trains Hundreds To Watch for New Plant Diseases

ALAMOGORDO - Master gardeners, county agents, crop inspectors and others with an interest in plants are on the alert for new plant diseases in New Mexico as part of a diagnostic network created by the Agricultural Bioterrorism Act.

Plant pathologist Natalie Goldberg with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service talks to master gardeners about the importance of watching for new plant diseases. Goldberg is training people as first detectors for the National Plant Diagnostic Network. (06/28/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

Plant pathologist Natalie Goldberg with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service has certified 100 advanced first detectors - mostly county Extension agents and Extension specialists - and 44 first detectors - all master gardeners - in the National Plant Diagnostic Network. Another 1,300 people have completed some basic training from Goldberg.

The network is designed to help maintain security of the food supply and prevent the spread of plant diseases that could cost agricultural producers billions.

"We're trying to train people to be alert and observant," Goldberg said. "Early detection is the only way we can have effective eradication."

Goldberg said new plant diseases could come to the United States due to unaware international travelers, uninspected shipments or even a weather event, such as a hurricane. Intentional introduction of plant diseases, recognized as a potential threat in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, is addressed in the bioterrorism act.

The network is designed to help coordinate the efforts of experts at land-grant universities, state departments of agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Master gardeners are especially suited to watch for new plant diseases. They are graduates of an extensive curriculum offered by NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service in about a dozen New Mexico counties. The 44 master gardeners received the first detector training during their state conference earlier this month in Alamogordo.

Two high-risk plant diseases are found on ornamental plants, said Goldberg. Sudden oak death, which kills oak trees and damages other species, is covered in the standard master gardener curriculum. Pearce's disease, an oleander leaf scorch, which kills grapevines, alfalfa and almond trees, is found in states bordering New Mexico.

Because master gardeners have close contact with landscapers and home gardeners, "they provide us with an eye outside of normally inspected areas, such as agriculture," Goldberg said. "The master gardeners provide us with an educated public eye in the landscape and homeowner arena."

Lois Glahn, an Otero County master gardener since 2000, completed the first detector training last year.

"Being a first detector allows me to be in a close-knit network of people who are on the cutting edge of looking for plant diseases," Glahn said. "It's made me more aware of conditions around me in my garden and in other people's gardens around me. The more you get into being a master gardener, the more you find out what you don't know."

The first detector training includes details about high-risk plant diseases, diagnosis of plant problems and sample collection and submission techniques.

Goldberg said while funding for more extensive training is being sought, much already has been accomplished.

"New Mexico has been a leader in training in the Western region," she said. "We're a step ahead of most of the Western states."

The network already is achieving results. In Louisiana, a person who had just gone through the training discovered an outbreak of soybean rust in 2004.

"The training really seemed to improve the reporting of that incident," Goldberg said. "It went from first detection to confirmation in three days."

New Mexico's first detectors have found suspicious signs of what first was feared to be sudden oak death, but turned out to be something else.

"We have people aware of the potential problem," Goldberg said. "We can make rapid detection, have a quick response and get it contained before it spreads."