Whether it was luck, divine guidance or something in between, Ray Schneider's eyes were the first to see Asian soybean rust in an American bean field. His November discovery in Louisiana set off a frenzied chain of events involving various state and federal agencies. The rust has now been found in many Southern states.
Colleagues say Schneider, a professor of plant pathology with the LSU AgCenter in Baton Rouge, La., should be lauded for his finding. If not for Schneider, Asian soybean rust could have been discovered in the midst of ruining next season's soybean crop.
Among other things, Schneider recently spoke with Southeast Farm Press about the disease, the search for it and a common misperception about the field it was found in. Among his comments:
On training to identify Asian soybean rust
“I first saw this disease last February at a USDA-sponsored workshop in Maryland. They had a bunch of soybean pathologists in. We saw the rust in a high-security greenhouse there. That was my only time to have seen it — and seeing it for those 10 minutes turned out to be really critical.
“Asian soybean rust is very easy to confuse with other diseases. That's especially true late in the season when many foliar diseases can show up. Having seen it, though, I knew what to look for.”
How he found it
“A number of us are planning to travel to Brazil in February. A soybean farmer from Illinois has organized this trip. Several of us wanted to join his group and I got in touch to see if that was possible. The farmer wanted to come down to Baton Rouge and meet with us before heading to Brazil.
“So, via train, he came down. On Nov. 5, he arrived in Baton Rouge and we spent some time talking about Brazil. During some downtime I suggested he might be interested in going out to our research farm to see some diseases he might not normally see in Illinois. He said, ‘Sure.’
“Well, on Nov. 6, on the way back to the train station, we stopped at a research farm near the LSU campus. I showed the farmer and his wife how to use a hand lens and we were walking the field checking insects and disease.
“I began to notice symptoms of a disease that I hadn't seen in Louisiana before. It was reminiscent of what I'd seen in Maryland a few months prior. Finally, it struck me and I stopped and spent some time checking closer.
“The farmer noticed something had intrigued me. He said something like, ‘You find something different? Is it rust?’ I must have looked like I'd seen a ghost.
“Anyway, I took them on to the train station and then went back and collected samples. I took them to the lab and, after having a look under the microscope, was rather certain we had the rust.
“I immediately called Clayton Hollier, the lead man for our rust reaction plan in Louisiana. He came in and we made a lot of photos and decided to activate the plan. That meant samples were sent to the USDA lab and also meant making sure everyone in the chain was brought up to speed.”
How prevalent was this in the field?
“It was on, perhaps, every 20th plant. It was sparse and wasn't easy to find.”
On his visceral reaction to seeing rust lesions
“Oh, my heart began racing — I was probably 80 percent sure of what I was looking at in the field. My anxiety went up even more when I got it back to the lab for study.
“You know, pulling the trigger on the rust reaction plan isn't something we did easily. We knew we'd be opening a can of worms and there was no telling what would happen, where it would lead. But it had to be done.
“The most heart-throbbing part was in waiting for confirmation from the USDA lab.
“It was very tense. They confirmed the disease on Wednesday. On Tuesday night, though, we were on pins and needles waiting for their announcement. It was like waiting for a baby to be born. After a detailed microscopic analysis on Saturday night, we were pretty sure we had it. But that wasn't enough for something like this — there had to be DNA analysis, especially since there are two strains of the rust, one severe and one mild. We ended up with the severe, of course.”
On LSU production fields and wild theories
“I want to make sure to point out this LSU research farm contains both experimental plots and production fields. The farm manager grows crops for cash to support research activities.
“We found this in a 10-acre production field, not a research plot. Some still haven't picked up on the distinction.
“It certainly caused some consternation at first because, between the lines, many were claiming the rust must have been brought in as part of a research effort or something. We heard all kinds of wild theories and there were probably more that we didn't hear… It's disappointing, but I guess that comes with something as volatile as this.”