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Researcher Cultivates Relationship With Growers and Seed Industry

For a successful crop of seeds, plants must have healthy flowers. WSU researchers are developing DNA tests to identify and assess lurking pathogens before they have a chance to ruin blooms and imperil the seed crop.
For a successful crop of seeds, plants must have healthy flowers. WSU researchers are developing DNA tests to identify and assess lurking pathogens before they have a chance to ruin blooms and imperil the seed crop.

A program at the WSU Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center focuses on diseases that affect vegetable seed crops sold in the United States and around the world.

Lindsey du Toit, Vegetable Seed Pathologist at the WSU Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center, works closely with growers to gather and share information about diseases affecting the vegetable crops they grow for seed.

“I get to work with some of the best and most progressive growers, which I highly appreciate” said du Toit.

A number of projects in her program are being worked on at any given time, with vegetable seed production research taking place on both sides of the Cascade Mountains in Washington. The differing climates allow different types of vegetables to be grown for seed in the two regions. For instance, spinach seed is one of the crops grown on the west side because spinach is not very heat tolerant. The crop raised there makes up as much as 50 percent of the U.S. supply of spinach seed. Research on spinach seed aims to find ways to make soil more suppressive to Verticillium wilt and Fusarium wilt — diseases with major negative impacts on seed production and quality.

East of the Cascades in central Washington, carrot seed is another facet of research in du Toit’s program. A bacterial pathogen that attacks carrot plants can infect the seeds, causing difficulties for seed companies. Professor du Toit’s team is trying to develop a DNA seed test that is fairly rapid and accurate for identifying whether the pathogen is present and, if present, how much is on the carrot seeds.

“This is a neat project funded by the California Fresh Carrot Advisory Board and seed companies,” du Toit said. “It is a very fulfilling job and project.”

Carrot Field

Both organic and conventional seed farmers participate in du Toit’s program. Much of the research in her program incorporates aspects that are relevant to both types of farming systems. Because organic farmers rely on alternative methods of disease control rather than on pesticides, du Toit says, workshops and training have been important to help seed growers successfully manage diseases in their organic seed crops.

One PhD student is currently working in du Toit’s program, trying to identify management practices to control damping-off, a disease that affects the seedling phases of vegetable crops. That student is following up on a previous MS student’s project on how to manage this disease.

One of the greatest rewards of her program, said du Toit, has been developing a relationship of trust with the growers they are trying to help in order to work effectively as a team to help address seed crop diseases.

“Recruiting input from growers and demonstrating how much we use and value their expertise for our research has really helped develop a successful program,” du Toit said. “It’s nice to be a point where we have good relationships with the growers and seed industry.”

By Whitney Parsons, CAHNRS Marketing, News, and Educational Communications intern