The Louisiana agriculture industry faces a subtropical climate, with which comes insects, diseases, and weeds that affect every facet of the business.
A three-year National Institutes of Food and Agriculture grant was recently awarded to a team of LSU AgCenter researchers and extension specialists who are combining their decades of experience to find solutions to a variety of harmful pests.
The Extension Implementation Program grant — valued at $110,000 for the first year and $106,000 each subsequent year, based on meeting certain criteria in year one — was awarded to entomologist Gene Reagan and plant pathologist Boyd Padgett. They are working alongside research associate Forest Huval and graduate assistant Megan Mulcahy. The funds are dedicated to supporting extension programs in the state.
The four objectives
The team has set four objectives for their work: improved monitoring and management of agronomic pests, personnel support for the LSU AgCenter Plant Diagnostic Center, development and distribution of education and extension materials, and pesticide recertification, safety, and application training.
Huval is tackling objective No. 1 in part by mapping the Mexican rice borer, a scourge of rice and sugarcane production in the state.
“On a weekly or biweekly basis, I’ll go out and check traps we’ve laced with pheromones to lure the insect in,” Huval said. “We’re currently monitoring them in 13 parishes and plan to expand further in the coming months.”
On the pathology front of the first objective, Padgett is studying certain classes of fungicides that were once effective but no longer are. He is trying to determine where resistant pathogen populations exist. “Some spores can be windblown from parish to parish,” Padgett said. “But in many cases, they can also be found in infested plant debris.”
The “integrated” part of integrated pest management can be understood by objective No. 2: personnel support for the Plant Diagnostic Center, which processes hundreds of plant samples affected by various biotic and abiotic stresses from Louisiana citizens each year.
Objective No. 3, development and distribution of educational materials, includes the brochures, pamphlets, and fact sheets that can be found at each of the AgCenter’s 64 parish offices statewide, but the grant project looks at ways to expand into the realm of electronic media with the potential creation of a dedicated YouTube channel focusing strictly on insects, as well as an app where a person can take a photo of a diseased plant, send it in, and have the problem identified.
“The idea is all of this would be entirely free to the user and anyone seeking out information,” Reagan said.
When it comes to objective No. 4 — pesticide registration, safety, and application training — the researchers all agree that not all insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides play well together. More often than not, a combination is needed for maximum crop yield. Padgett said the importance of training in the application of both private and commercial pesticides cannot be ignored.
“When it comes to pesticides, we always go back to drift mitigation,” Padgett said. “If you spray a field or garden and the wind blows it into someone else’s property, no matter how big or small, it can be problematic.”
Keeping pollinators healthy
Where pesticides certainly help control harmful pests, beneficial insects are not always immune. One among many factors that comes into play with pesticide application is ensuring the health of pollinators, which are indispensable to life on the planet. Mulcahy said the public must always be aware of potential dangers.
“You could imagine if you had a business where they produced and sold honey, someone could unknowingly apply a pyrethroid insecticide and wipe out the entire hive,” she said. “So, if we were to break it down, education and outreach on issues like these are really what the goal of the grant is about.”