TWIN FALLS • The federal government is providing $109,000 for the University of Idaho to study an emerging plant disease the school says “poses a substantial threat to the state’s potato industry.”

The money will be used to monitor potato fields for the presence of psyllids, which spread a crop disease called zebra chip. The grant also will allow research into effects of the disease on tubers during storage – a topic about which little is known.

Zebra chip reduces yields and causes bands in potato flesh that become dark when fried. It makes potatoes unmarketable, but there is no health risk to humans.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be received late this year and used during 2013 and 2014. It will allow programs currently under way with Idaho Potato Commission money to expand significantly, said Erik Wenninger, an assistant professor of entomology at the university who is currently working at the Kimeberly Research and Extension Center.

Wenninger and colleagues have surveyed Idaho fields for psyllids this summer. They reported finding them in the Kimberley center’s field and in a commercial field in Twin Falls about six weeks ago. Early this month, they saw a sharp increase in potato psyllids, according to a posting on the Pacific Northwest Pest Alert website.

Sixteen psyllids were trapped on sticky cards in Kimberly, and two psyllids were removed from plants by a vacuum mechanism. The alert added that 54 additional psyllids were trapped on sticky cards in a Twin Falls County field.

Zebra chip has been confirmed at three Twin Falls County locations, including the Kimberly center, the website said. Leaf scorching, swollen nodes, vascular tissue browning and curled leaves are symptoms.

Lacey Menasco of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture said the federal funding is part of the USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. Twenty-four applications were submitted seeking almost $1.8 million, she said.

A panel of industry representatives reviewed and scored the applications, selecting 12 for funding. The request for zebra chip study received the second-highest amount of money, behind the $185,983 to promote specialty crops through advertising, marketing and education.

In the application for grant funding, zebra chip was described as an “emerging” potato disease that was reported for the first time in Idaho in September 2011.

“ZC causes millions of dollars in losses annually to growers in the southwestern United States,” the application said.

The potato psyllid is believed to overwinter in the Southwest United States and northern Mexico, and migrate to northern regions in late spring.

“The extent and severity of the potential threat to Idaho’s potato industry is unknown and almost nothing is known regarding effects of ZC on tuber quality during storage,” according to the application.

Wenninger said most of the $109,000 will pay for technicians who test psyllids, although some of the money will pay for equipment such as sticky cards, leaf blowers, collection nets and plastic bags.

“We are now doing this project on a more limited scale,” Wenninger said. “Next year we can add a few more (monitoring) fields.”

He will head monitoring efforts through the Kimberly center while Phil Nolte will oversee monitoring sites in eastern Idaho and Mike Thornton will do the same in western Idaho. Both Nolte and Thornton are University of Idaho staff members.

Wenninger’s colleague at the Kimberly center, University of Idaho professor Nora Olsen, will head the study of zebra chip’s effect on potatoes in storage.

She said the Kimberly center has one of the nation’s few storage facilities specifically designed to research potatoes. The study will determine whether altering storage temperature, humidity and air flow can produce a better product.

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