OSU tackles a tiny $50 million soil pest

Richard Smiley
OSU's Richard Smiley digs deep to learn about nematodes, a mysterious and tiny crop pest. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum).

OSU teaches farmers how to overcome microscopic nematodes

Pacific Northwest soils are chock-full of eel-shaped roundworms so small they’re invisible to the naked eye. Known as nematodes, certain species feed on the roots of wheat, barley and other crops and cause more than $50 million in losses in the region each year. What's worse, many farmers are unaware their soils have nematodes.

Leading the way to alert and educate them is Richard Smiley, a plant pathologist at OSU's Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center in Pendleton who has studied these pests since the 1990s. Smiley has traveled extensively throughout the region, testing thousands of plots and documenting the presence of nematodes in 90 percent of soils he has sampled.

He disseminates the latest information to help growers avoid the worst of these microscopic parasites. Farmers learn to spot telltale signs of the pest's presence (remember, they’re thinner than a human hair) like stunted crops or yellowed leaves. Smiley teaches growers how to alleviate damage by applying extra fertilizer, watering strategically and rotating crops on a strict schedule. It’s impossible to eradicate the nematodes once they’re established, and since there are no chemicals available for killing them on large wheat fields, OSU’s research-based advice is often growers’ first and last line of defense against these pests. In addition, Smiley has tested hundreds of varieties of wheat, barley, and oats to determine how badly yields are affected by nematodes. This research helps farmers choose which varieties to plant, while crop breeders around the Pacific Northwest are busy crafting new varieties they hope will free growers from the nematode nuisance.

Source: Richard Smiley

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