College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

Fighting Damping-off, Small Bites, Cranberry Pioneers, Upcoming Events

ResearchWSU Mount Vernon Team Studies Damping-Off Management in Organic Vegetables

Large-scale Pacific Northwest organic vegetable producers routinely plant 30 percent more seed than they really want. They do this to help with weed control and because they anticipate losing that much to a plant disease called damping-off, according to Lindsey du Toit, associate professor and vegetable seed pathologist at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon. In the worst cases, when a combination of early planting in late February to early March and a cool, wet spring create conditions perfect for damping-off, growers have had to replant entire fields. Paying for that extra seed–anywhere from $20 to $55 more per acre for certain crops–is expensive.

Lindsey du Toit and graduate student Ana Vida Alcala are working to help organic vegetable growers in the Pacific Northwest's coastal region and central Washington's Columbia Basin find ways to manage damping-off.
Lindsey du Toit and graduate student Ana Vida Alcala are working to help organic vegetable growers in the Pacific Northwest's coastal region and central Washington's Columbia Basin find ways to manage damping-off.

“If they could get this disease under control, then that’s one cost that could be avoided,” said du Toit. She and graduate student Ana Vida Alcala are continuing work from an earlier study to help organic vegetable growers in the Pacific Northwest’s coastal region and central Washington’s Columbia Basin find ways to manage damping-off, also known as seedling blight.

Organic vegetable growers face unique challenges from the get-go. For one thing, they cannot use the same chemicals that conventional growers use to combat the various soil-borne pathogens (Pythium, Rhizoctonia, or Fusarium) responsible for the disease. For another, farmers growing vegetables for the organic processed food market must plant early for several reasons: planting early reduces competition with weeds that are difficult to control with organic methods; to ensure harvest before conventional crops and thus avoid the effort and cost of cleaning the processing facility, which they must do to keep organic certification; and to plant two different crops in one growing season consecutively, thus maximizing return on the farmer’s investment.

Unfortunately, the low soil temperatures and high soil moisture associated with early spring planting allows pathogens that cause damping-off to thrive. The young seedlings are also at their most vulnerable to these pathogens, which are attracted to tender, succulent roots. Damping-off affects the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients and moisture from the soil, resulting in poor emergence and plant growth.

Alcala, who is working toward her doctorate in plant pathology, said she and du Toit are investigating alternative management methods applicable to organic vegetable production, specifically for peas. One method is treating seed with products allowed on certified-organic farms. Seeds treated with NORDOX®, a copper-based fungicide, appeared to grow well in one of Alcala’s field trials that was severely affected by damping-off.

“There are promising results, but we just looked at one season,” Alcala said. “It’s still too early to say for sure. We still have a year and half of my program to fine-tune the information we’re obtaining. We need to study the whole cropping system to ultimately know if organic producers are likely to use these applications.”

Another method that will require further investigation is studying electrolyte leakage from seeds as a tool for predicting damping-off risk in the field, Alcala said. Electrolyte leakage is the loss of dissolved minerals and other nutrients as seeds take up water from the soil. Electrolytes attract damping-off pathogens. Seeds stored for a long time are especially prone to leakage and older or more damaged seeds leak electrolytes faster once they are planted. Pacific Northwest growers found that planting high-quality seeds for organic vegetable crops is very important to ensure good growth and to minimize crop loss.

Vegetables at a farmers' market.
Vegetables at a farmers' market.

“If you use poor-quality seed and the pathogen is present in the soil, the chances of the plant becoming infected are higher. You’re making it more favorable for the pathogen,” Alcala said. “So if you have the right soil and weather conditions and poor-quality seed, it really is the perfect storm for damping-off to occur.

The study originally started in 2006 when du Toit and a former graduate student, Jaime Cummings, evaluated seed and drench treatments for damping-off in spinach that were either approved or being developed for certified-organic production. The treatments were tested on Pythium ultimum, Rhizoctonia solani, and Fusarium oxysporum under greenhouse and field conditions.

Alcala took over Cummings’ work in 2009 when du Toit received additional funding to continue the project. They interviewed nine Washington growers of certified-organic vegetables to understand their damping-off management needs. The growers they interviewed work with diverse production systems that range from a few acres of organic vegetable crops to a 6,000-acre certified-organic operation.

Yet the interviewed growers indicated they don’t typically use organic seed treatments because of inconsistent results. Alcala and du Toit are testing different microbial and non-microbial treatments under the same conditions their interviewees encounter. The production processes that Pacific Northwest organic vegetable farmers use may not work with a particular treatment, and some products may do better in warmer soil conditions, rather than in the cool, early spring conditions of central Washington. Still, growers want an effective solution to their damping-off problems.

“Some growers indicated they would pay up to $100, even $150, per acre for a seed or drench treatment that works consistently to significantly control damping-off under their production practices,” du Toit said. “That tells you that this is significant.”

–Nella Letizia

Small BitesTowards a Sustainability Index for Agriculture

Green Times asked WSU Extension educator and Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources team member David Granatstein to define “sustainable.” Granatstein argues that the word has a range of meanings, none particularly helpful when trying to compare one type of farm with another. Rather, he says, what we need is a sustainability index to help us compare different types of farms. Read Granatstein’s essay on the Green Times blog »

What do you think? Post your comments on the Green Times blog or, if you’re interested in presenting your own views at length, write the editor ( with your proposal.

Fight the Wilts with Vegetable Grafting

Verticillium being cultured in a petri dish. WSU Extension has info that can take "the wilts" off a vegetable grower's plate.
Verticillium being cultured in a petri dish. WSU Extension has info that can take "the wilts" off a vegetable grower's plate.

Verticillium wilt is a nationwide scourge, and with the impending phase-out of methyl bromide fumigation, Pacific Northwest growers need new techniques to fight this crop-busting fungus. One new technique comes in the form of a centuries-old Asian practice: vegetable grafting. A team lead by Carol Miles at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon is helping watermelon, eggplant, and tomato growers fight the wilts with a time-tested technique modernized for today’s growers.

While some plants, such as bottle gourd, are not economically significant in their own right, growers admire their resistance to verticillium wilt. Miles found that this desirable resistance could be transferred to watermelon plants by grafting watermelon scion (a twig containing the buds that later become a fruit or vegetable) onto bottle gourd rootstock.

“Vegetable grafting,” said Miles, “is a simple, biological method for achieving disease resistance.” Miles and her colleagues have created a web page with publications, animated presentations, and additional resources to guide growers in the use of this method.

Learn more at

–Bob Hoffmann

Potato Farmers Reap Many Benefits to the Soil by Using Green Manures

Strong winds can create major dust storms in eastern Washington. One source of blowing dust is from newly harvested potato fields that lack residue and soil structure. In Oct., 2009, for example, one such storm reduced visibility on Interstate 90 between Ritzville and Moses Lake to near-zero, and the freeway was closed for 20 hours.
Strong winds can create major dust storms in eastern Washington. One source of blowing dust is from newly harvested potato fields that lack residue and soil structure. In Oct., 2009, for example, one such storm reduced visibility on Interstate 90 between Ritzville and Moses Lake to near-zero, and the freeway was closed for 20 hours.

The hazardous weather outlook for the day warned of high winds, possibly gusting up to 40-50 m.p.h. While the National Weather Service warned about damage to trees and buildings, WSU Extension educator Andy McGuire could see another kind of damage. “I sure saw the soil blowing off some fields today,” said the member of the leadership team for WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. He called from his hotel in Sunnyside, after a day of fieldwork

Wind erosion, McGuire explained, robs cropland of its tiny, fertile soil particles, while lowering air quality and even causing highway collisions due to reduced visibility. These problems can all be redressed through practices that can build soil quality.

Soil quality is often the answer to many problems, as McGuire discovered when he advised farmers to use green manures, including mustard, sudangrass, and arugula, to control soil-borne pathogens such as verticillium wilt in potatoes. As measured by an increase in organic matter, farmers noticed an improvement in soil quality, and green manures also helped control the fungal organisms that threatened crops,.

Soil with more organic matter has better water infiltration and tilth, or texture. When tilth is better, harvest is faster, soil falls off the potatoes more easily, and the soil is more resistant to compaction. Compacted soils have less pore space for air and water and can decrease plant health and yields.

Conventional agriculture has not always focused on soil quality. Columbia Basin potato farmers were able to achieve high yields through irrigation and fertilizer alone. Without improving the soil, however, wind erosion and intensive tillage can gradually degrade the farmland that potato growers depend on. But green manure, said McGuire, “has the potential to bump up organic matter levels,” reducing wind erosion and improving tilth.

It sounds good, but are farmers convinced? “Green manure acreage is going up every year,” McGuire stated. “We started with 1,500 acres in 1999, and in 2011, it was over 30,000 acres.” The majority of potato farmers using green manures report better soil tilth, more organic matter in the soil, a reduction in wind erosion, improved water infiltration, and better control of verticillium wilt.

–Bob Hoffmann

Learn more about using green manures by checking out these publications available from WSU Extension:

Collaboration Fuels Tribal Biodiesel Project

Winter canola in bloom near Omak.
Winter canola in bloom near Omak.

WSU canola research in collaboration with the Colville Confederate Tribes has enhanced both the region’s economy and environment. This spring, the CCT and area growers intend to build a new canola oilseed crushing facility at the Paschal Sherman Indian School in Omak. The tribe already has a canola storage site in place, said Frank Young, a research agronomist and weed scientist for the USDA-Agricultural Research Service and a WSU adjunct faculty member

Canola is providing the CCT with valuable products such as biodiesel and livestock feed in place of other local resources that are no longer economically viable. “There’s no demand for lumber anymore,” Young said. The market for wood products has decreased and left many tribal members without jobs. The tribe has established a goal to process enough oilseed for biodiesel to fuel the Pascal Sherman school buses and other vehicles, he said.

Meanwhile, a feed store in Okanogan has agreed to distribute crushed canola, in the form of canola meal, to local livestock growers, said Young. Okanogan County has the highest livestock population in the state. The canola meal also will be distributed to local fish hatcheries to feed salmon.

“If you keep one dollar in the local economy, it circulates three times,” Young said.

The next step in the ongoing project is to teach the tribe how to grow canola on abandoned crop land, Young said. Restoring pastures and hay fields could potentially provide 20,000 additional acres of the oilseed crop. The project began with hand-planted and -watered spring canola, but researchers are now focusing their efforts on winter canola, which yields almost twice as much with similar inputs, he said. Used in crop rotation, canola also helps to improve winter wheat yields and weed control.

Reduced tillage and improved water quality are additional benefits from the canola research. “In 2006, the first salmon in 70 years swam up Omak Creek,” said WSU crop scientist Dennis Roe. This was mostly a result of improved conservation practices. Reducing tillage preserves more crop stubble, he said, which will help prevent erosion into the Omak and Foster creeks. Otherwise, eroded sediment fills in the stream channels and smothers fish spawning beds.

The research will look into how to establish canola without excessively disrupting the soil, Roe said. The project also will also work with the tribe to use safer herbicides, reduce the amount used and use other methods to slow the progression of resistant weeds, Young said.

–Tallie Mattson, WSU News intern

Watch “From Field to Fuel,” a short video describing the canola-to-diesel project, by visiting


Long Beach Farmers Seek to Be Washington’s First Organic Cranberry Producers

Starvation Alley Farms cranberry harvest in fall, 2011. L-R: John Oakes (Jared's dad), Jessika Tantisook, Jared Oakes
Starvation Alley Farms cranberry harvest in fall, 2011. L-R: John Oakes (Jared's dad), Jessika Tantisook, Jared Oakes

Jared Oakes and Jessika Tantisook are partners in Starvation Alley Farms. The partners are organic farmers pioneering the production of organic cranberry production in western Washington. As they transition to organic production, they are documenting the methods they use so that others may learn from them. And as they transition, they are being mentored by WSU Extension educator Kim Patten, a cranberry expert based in Long Beach, Washington.

Oakes and Tantisook have long been interested in food. With their background in the food and wine industry, they are passionate about being able to work with produce that is grown sustainably and locally. “Food,” said Oakes, “is a microcosm of what happens in the rest of the world. We’ve become enamored of the local food movement and wanted to contribute.”

Oakes said he and his partner are “coming at it form an outside perspective” — they are new to the business of farming but say they are encouraged by the market for their cranberries, by the science-based advice they get from WSU Extension and other sources, and by the ideal of producing healthy, locally grown food.

Watch a short video about Oakes and Tantisook at And be sure to check out their web site at

CalendarEvents Calendar

March 15: Northwest Washington Farm to Table Trade Meeting for Whatcom, Skagit, Island, and San Juan farmers, fishers, ranchers, chefs, distributors, restaurateurs, processors, caterers, and grocers. $15; 9 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. at the Community Health Education Center in Bellingham. Learn more »

March 24: Hard cider making and orcharding workshop. Presented by WSU Snohomish County Extension at Ed’s Apples in Sultan. Learn more »

April 3: Native Pollinators on the Palouse Workshop. 6:30 – 9 p.m. at the 1912 Center in Moscow, Idaho. Learn how to design native-plant landscapes that attract native polinators; where to get native plants. Watch for more information coming soon on the Green Times blog, or contact Brenda Erhardt at 208-882-4960.

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Featured Research

By Rebecca Phillips

Bad news in the media got you down? News consumers have only themselves to blame, says new research showing that it’s actually buying habits that drive negative press.

The research looks at the negative news phenomenon through the prism of economic science. And while previous studies have focused on the supply side by examining media output, this analysis is among the first to investigate a negative news bias from the consumer or demand side. MORE

By Sylvia Kantor

Pullman, Wash. – You generally don’t find livestock among the hills of the Palouse region of eastern Washington where grain is grown. But wheat farmers Eric and Sheryl Zakarison are changing that – and making a profit.

On 100 of their 1,300 family owned acres, they are experimenting with a rather unconventional scheme for the region – growing wheat, peas, perennial grasses like alfalfa and sheep in a tightly integrated system. MORE



By Scott Weybright

The watermelon crop has declined dramatically in Washington because of disease. But Washington State University researchers are developing a solution that involves grafting watermelon plants onto squash and other vine plant rootstocks.

“We’ve lost about a third of our state’s watermelon production over the last 10 years because of Verticillium wilt,” said Carol Miles, a professor of vegetable horticulture at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon. “Growers have switched to other crops that are less susceptible.” MORE

Robby Rosenman

By Sylvia Kantor

Gender and personality matter in how people cope with physical and mental illness, according to a paper by a Washington State University scientist and colleagues at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

Men are less affected by a single-symptom illness than women, but are more affected when more than one symptom is present. The number of symptoms doesn’t change how women are affected, according to Robert Rosenman, WSU professor in the Department of Economic Sciences. MORE


Conservation buffers please the eye, protect the landscape, says WSU researcher

By Seth Truscott

PULLMAN, Wash. – Researchers know that adding natural buffers to the farm landscape can stop soil from vanishing. Now a scientist at Washington State University has found that more buffers are better, both for pleasing the eye and slowing erosion.
Linda Klein, a recent doctoral graduate in WSU’s School of the Environment, worked with six other researchers at the university, plus one at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Moscow (Idaho) Forestry Sciences Laboratory, to explore the role that buffers – strips or clumps of shrubs, trees and natural vegetation – play in the landscape and in people’s visual preferences.
Klein surveyed Whitman County residents to see if conservation features made for more scenic fields and valleys. She found that Palouse residents prefer more nature with their wheat fields.MORE


With 39 locations throughout the state, WSU Extension is the front door to the University. Extension builds the capacity of individual, organization, businesses and communities, empowering them to find solutions for local issues and to improve their quality of life. Extension collaborates with communities to create a culture of life-long learning and is recognized for its accessible, learner-centered, relevant, high-quality, unbiased educational programs.

MudflatImpact: Burrowing Shrimp and Invasive Eelgrass

Shellfish production in Washington is a $60 million a year industry. Several major pests plague this industry, resulting in major crop loss. One of the most important pests is subterranean burrowing shrimp. These shrimp bioturbate (stir up) the sediment, causing the oysters to sink and die. For the past 60 years the industry has been using the insecticide Sevin to control this pest, but due to lawsuits its use was phased out in 2012. Without alternative control for shrimp, tens of millions of dollars in annual crop revenue will be lost and the industry will quickly lose its economic viability in southwestern Washington.

PoultryFarmImpact: The National Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center

The Environmental Protection Agency has identified agriculture as the leading contributor of pollutants to the nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs. These reports often do not separate animal agriculture from other agricultural enterprises, but they do note that pathogens, nutrients, and oxygen-depleting substances associated with manure are three of the top five pollutants. Some emerging issues related to manure management include: endocrine disruptors (hormones), pharmaceuticals (antimicrobials), and antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Adopting farm practices that minimize the environmental impact is important for food safety.

BiosolidsImpact: Biosolids and Compost

Biosolids are the solids produced during municipal wastewater treatment. Composts are made from a variety of organic materials, including both urban and agriculture sources such as yard trimmings, biosolids, storm debris, food waste or manure, and food processing residues. While these materials have traditionally been viewed as waste, they can play a valuable role as soil amendments in urban and agricultural settings. They provide nutrients and organic matter and they sequester carbon, thereby conserving resources, restoring soils, and combating climate change.

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The WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) Office of Alumni & Friends is a service unit dedicated to promoting philanthropic support for the college’s research, teaching, and extension programs.

CAHNRS seeks $190 million through the Campaign for WSU. This unprecedented fundraising goal is managed through the CAHNRS Office of Alumni and Friends. If you would like to learn more about the CAHNRS’s fundraising priorities, please explore our website or meet the team.

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Through the Campaign for Washington State University, CAHNRS and WSU Extension will play a major role in defining answers to complex issues through truly big ideas—feeding the world, powering the planet, and ensuring the health and well-being of children, families, and communities. See below to learn more about how we are addressing these issues in our strategic and on-going  initiatives and development of world-class students.

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Faculty & Staff

Important Dates and Deadlines

March 26, 2015
  • CAHNRS Honors – SEL Event Center
March 26-27, 2015
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April 6, 2015

  • Signed Faculty and AP Annual Reviews
September 10, 2015
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How many varieties of wheat has WSU developed?



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