Plant disease plagues Texas wheat industry

Texas wheat industry officials Tuesday (today) will appeal for federal help to cover losses from a fast-spreading plant disease that has damaged 1.4 million bushels of wheat valued at about $4 million. The fungal disease, known as Karnal bunt, is not harmful to humans but reduces both production and quality of grain. Infected wheat cannot be exported, and must be heat-treated before being milled for feed or flour. Texas is the nation’s fifth-largest wheat-producing state, with 2000 production of 66 million bushels valued at $168.3 million. About half of the state’s wheat production is exported. Since June 8, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has placed quarantines on the movement of wheat and equipment in three North Central Texas counties, including Young, Throckmorton and Archer. Authorities also are testing for the disease in neighboring Baylor County, and quarantines established in 1997 in San Saba and McCulloch counties remain in effect. “Folks are pretty panicked right now,” said Allen Spelce, spokesman for the Texas Department of Agriculture. “We were looking at low commodity prices and high fuel costs to begin with. And we just came out of a drouth.” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs has sent letters to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman seeking compensation for losses, as have the Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Farmers Union and the Texas Wheat Producers Association. Today, representatives of the Texas Wheat Producers Association, the Texas Grain & Feed Association and other agricultural leaders will press their case in Washington with Bill Hawks, USDA’s undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs. They’ll also meet with Rep. Charles Stenholm of Abilene, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, and Rep. Mac Thorn-berry, R-Clarendon. In the past, wheat producers were compensated the difference between what they would have received for a normal crop and what they’ll receive selling the damaged grain. USDA spokeswoman Kimberley Smith on Thursday said a final rule that would cover such payments has yet to be published. She couldn’t say when that would happen, but said the department is aware of the urgency. “We recognize the importance of the situation, and we’re working on setting up the rule-making process to make this a priority,” Ms. Smith said. Young County grain elevator operator Michael Bryant also will make the trip Tuesday. He’s out $200,000 for grain worth half as much. The co-owner of Olney Feed and Grain in Olney, 110 miles northwest of Fort Worth, Mr. Bryant had contracted to buy 70,000 bushels of grain from farmers at a preset price. After it was delivered, the grain tested positive for Karnal bunt. The elevator’s managers first suspected a problem two days into the harvest on May 24 when some wheat arrived with hollowed-out kernels and gave off a fishy odor. Mr. Bryant notified the Agriculture Department, which started the testing that led to the quarantines. So far, the disease has been confirmed in 20 fields in the four-county area of Young, Throckmorton, Archer and Baylor, according to the Texas Wheat Producers Association. As it stands now, Mr. Bryant said he’d be fortunate to sell his grain for $100,000. Asked what he expects from the Tuesday meeting, he replied, “I hope to hear that compensation is just around the corner. We’ve been in a drought and we were hoping that this crop would pull us through.”

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