Video: Sowing seeds of crop destruction

MORDEN, Man. — Bob Conner sounds like a proud papa when he shows off a patch of withered, wilting, dying bean plants.

“This is our white mould nursery,” he explained to a group of bean growers, agronomists, advisers and agriculture researchers.

“We will be irrigating if we have to…. We want to create the ideal conditions for an epidemic.”

Conner is a lead researcher at Agriculture Canada’s Morden research station and an organizer of the pulse crop disease studies, which involve hundreds of varieties from many different beans, peas and soybeans.

Unlike farmers who strive all season to lower the risks of infection from bacterial and fungal infections, Conner, fellow researchers and summer agriculture students work hard to make the plants sick.

“We’ve done just about everything a grower wouldn’t do,” said Conner during a Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers tour Aug. 23.

“We have a perverse view of the world.”


They appear to be very good at what they do. Not only are large patches and strips of crop obviously sick and in death’s embrace, but within the stands, disease ugliness is hiding.

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The ugliness can’t hide for long, though, as eager agronomists, advisers, centre staff and farmers wade in to the crops to try to find good examples.

“There’s a really good bean lesion here,” exclaims one person on the tour as she finds a bean pod massively infected by the “cigarette burn” craters of anthracnose.

“Ooooooh, that’s nice,” replied a colleague.

“Yup, that’s classic,” said a Manitoba Agriculture adviser.

“Nice find,” commented another.

Although farmers might have trouble believing it, creating disease within a crop isn’t easy, especially because many varieties carry genes designed to resist common field risks.

In these plots, the crops are kept moist and the soil wet. Lack of a proper rotation is a valued situation if researchers are trying to encourage disease.

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And they actually sow the soil with disease from bags of crop plague they have carefully stored.

Where does one obtain a bag of the black fungus that spreads white mould?

“We buy our sclerotinia” from a sunflower plant that cleans it out from seed deliveries, said Conner.

“We’ll buy a sack of sclerotinia.”

Detecting the differences be-tween diseases is important in diagnosing a sick crop and many of those on the tour seem to treat it as a combination of science and art.

Conner seems to take that approach too, describing one element of crop sickness almost as a wine lover might describe a vineyard.

“You can almost smell the disease,” he said, surrounded by yellowed, wilted, broken and stunted bean crops. “When the plants begin to rot there’s a rotten smell.”

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Some in the group of scientists, advisers and farmers nodded with appreciation, and many appeared to be sniffing carefully to catch the elusive perfume of plague.