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Noteworthy News

Tracking an ill wind * With SMEL, scientists target swine smell * Announcing some new releases! Improved varieties are developed * Sociologists gauge knowledge of the College and agribusiness * Extending upgrades: Agent brings Y2K compliance expertise to rural businesses and farms * A finer precision: New sensor will use NIR technology to measure plant nutrients * Toward healthy hearts * Focusing on global agriculture


Tracking an ill wind:
Blue mold forecasting technology is
applied to predict potent pollen's path

Typically, during December and January, the wind blows mountain cedar pollen from the Arbuckle Mountains of south-central Oklahoma and the Edwards Plateau region of west-central Texas — and that’s when inhabitants of those states take cover. One of the most potent allergens in North America, pollen from the mountain cedar tree can produce severe symptoms known as “Texas Fever.”

Mountain cedar pollenLast season, thanks to a forecasting technology developed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, allergy sufferers had more accurate warnings about when the pollen would be in their area.

Since 1995, the College has been the base for the North American Tobacco Blue Mold Forecast Center. The center combines reports of continental tobacco blue mold outbreaks with meteorological information to alert all tobacco farmers when the infectious spores will be arriving in their area. The same technology has now been expanded to the area of human health — forecasting the spread of mountain cedar pollen in the southwestern United States.

In addition, a new forecast system in the College was developed last year to issue advisories on the spread of cucurbit downy mildew, a plant disease that attacks vegetables such as cucumbers, squash, cantaloupe, pumpkins and watermelon. Researchers believe this disease also is spread by winds, much like blue mold.

The tobacco blue mold forecast was first issued during a severe epidemic of the 1995 growing season. The forecast center, begun under the direction of Dr. Charles Main of the N.C. State department of plant pathology, allows tobacco farmers to call a toll-free number in Raleigh to find out if weather and spore conditions in their area are favorable for the spread of blue mold. By following the forecast, growers know when to spray and protect their crops with fungicide to prevent the disease, which can devastate a tobacco crop.

In the spring of 1996, the center added an Internet site where growers can check a trajectory map to see where the blue mold spores are coming from and where they are headed. By 1997, the system was being widely used by tobacco growers and becoming more and more reliable. That year, the forecast system issued 469 blue mold forecasts for 79 days of the tobacco growing season. Blue mold outbreaks were accurately forecast in 12 of 13 states that reported later outbreaks.

For 1998, the center predicted blue mold outbreaks in 14 of 17 states where outbreaks occurred.

“I think either we’ve been awfully lucky or we’re getting better or both,” Main said.

Dr. Estelle Levetin, aerobiologist at the University of Tulsa, had been acquainted for many years with Main’s forecasting work through professional conferences.

“I began to wonder if we could do the same thing with mountain cedar pollen. It suddenly clicked,” she said.

A year ago, she and Main began working out a plan for how the meteorological forecasts could be used to predict when the mountain cedar pollen would be released and where it would be on any given day. While allergy sufferers can be devastated by the pollen, they can avoid the symptoms if they prepare for the days when pollen counts will be high.

Main says the goals of the blue mold and mountain cedar forecasts are largely the same — giving people time to prepare, whether by spraying antifungals to prevent plant diseases or taking antihistamines and staying indoors to avoid the pollen.

“This is a blending of plant pathology, aerobiology and meteorology,” Main said. “And that’s what we’re all about — taking technologies from different disciplines and combining them to help people.”

Levetin is still analyzing data from the first forecast season, but the results are promising. As it was for the tobacco blue mold center, a World Wide Web site was established for the mountain cedar pollen forecasts. One feature of the Web page was a reporting form that allergy sufferers could use to report their experience with the new system. The overwhelming response was positive, Levetin says.

“It worked great,” Levetin said of the forecast system. “I think we’ll be able to refine it to work even better next year.”

The Cucurbit Downy Mildew Forecast further expands the use of the technology in the area of plant disease forecasting. Dr. Gerald Holmes, N.C. State plant pathologist and vegetable Extension specialist, is hoping that meteorological information, combined with reports of downy mildew outbreaks, will help confirm that the disease is spread much like blue mold. Because cucurbits are grown throughout the United States and other countries, an effective forecast system could be a useful tool for growers.

“We know that downy mildew spreads by the wind and rain on the local level,” Holmes said. “What we’re trying to do here is long-distance, state-to-state forecasting.”

Holmes, a member of the College’s department of plant pathology, works with a team of 40 people across the southeastern United States — plant pathologists, Extension agents and horticulturists — who report disease outbreaks to Holmes via the Internet. This year, he will add reporters in Mexico and California. As with blue mold, these individuals provide information on:

  • where outbreaks occur,
  • the size of the affected fields and type of crop,
  • severity of the disease,
  • chemicals used to treat it,
  • and how well they are working.

University meteorologist Tom Keever takes information from outbreak reports, examines wind patterns and other weather conditions and issues a forecast about where the disease is likely to appear within the next 48 hours. Cucurbit growers in the affected areas can prepare by spraying fungicides. If a particular chemical is not working, because of fungicide resistance in the pathogen, growers in the path of the disease spores can be alerted to try something different.

Downy mildew produces spores on the underside cucurbit leaves, turning them yellow. Plants will die in a matter of days.

“If conditions are optimal and spores are there, you could have a meltdown,” Holmes said.

For all downy mildew-type diseases, weather conditions play an important role in whether disease spores that settle on a field will cause a new outbreak. Heavy rain will wash spores off the plants, and outbreaks usually will not occur in hot, dry weather. Downy mildew outbreaks are most likely to occur in cloudy, wet weather or during a heavy dew.

“Once it’s in your area, the only defense is to spray fungicides. It’s better to know before the disease arrives — 48 hours gives growers planning time,” Holmes said.

As do other forecasts, downy mildew has its own Internet site where growers can report outbreaks, check the disease forecast and learn more about the disease. In addition to being a forecast system, it is also an excellent educational tool, and Holmes is hoping to increase awareness of it this year.

“Success depends on people using the web site and reporting outbreaks,” he said.

As for future applications for the forecast, Main says there are some in the works he can’t discuss yet.

“I think there are other biological systems where this technology can be applied to. And, it can be done on a continental basis, not just for North Carolina.”

—Natalie E. Hampton

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With SMEL, scientists
target swine smell

The straightforward proposition that what goes into a pig has a profound effect on what comes out of a pig could play a significant role in efforts to reduce odor from North Carolina swine farms.

At least that is the hope of Dr. Theo van Kempen, an expert on swine nutrition in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Van Kempen, an assistant professor in the department of animal science, believes that by manipulating the diets of pigs he can have a dramatic effect on the odor of swine waste. Nutritional strategies, he says, have the potential to reduce odor considerably.

“We should be able to reduce ammonia emissions theoretically by 70 percent, practically by 50 percent. Odor is probably the same story,” he says. Ammonia, a form of nitrogen, is produced with waste. It contributes to odor and is also an environmental concern.

Until now, van Kempen explains, nutritional research has not been aimed at reducing odor. Rather, nutritional research focused on developing diets that caused pigs to grow as fast as possible at the lowest cost.

Dr. Theo van KempenAt the same time, researchers did not have facilities to test nutritional strategies designed to reduce odor. Now, van Kempen does. The nutritionist will test his ideas in a facility called, appropriately, SMEL, for Swine Malodor Emission Laboratory.

The new lab, which became operational in early 1999, features two chambers enclosing 7- by 8-foot spaces in which pigs will be raised. The chambers are designed so that waste produced by the pigs may be collected and analyzed and so that air entering and leaving the chambers may be controlled and analyzed. Using a technology called Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, van Kempen can analyze the air leaving a chamber and determine the existence and amount of gases in the air sample.

In other words, van Kempen can determine with precision what goes into and comes out of pigs in the chambers and how pig diets affect the air around them. The odor of pig waste is associated with various gases, or compounds, he explains, and the lab is equipped to identify these and other gases. If van Kempen can develop nutritional strategies that reduce these gases, it is likely he will reduce odor as well.

He plans in the immediate future to look at the amount of fiber in swine diets, since, he says, a diet with high fiber affects odor. He wants to try to determine “the fiber level we should be using.” Van Kempen also plans to experiment with adding compounds such as phosphoric acid or adipic acid to feed to lower the pH of urine. Lowering pH, he explains, will decrease the amount of ammonia released from waste. While the effect of lowing urine pH on odor is not known, van Kempen thinks it likely that odor will decrease as ammonia emissions decline.

In addition, high-quality, highly digestible diets will be tested in the SMEL chambers. If the food fed to pigs is more digestible, it stands to reason the pigs will produce less waste. Experiments with diets that reduce sulfur, which tends to turn into smelly sulfur compounds, are also planned. Copper sources that don’t contain sulfur are to be substituted for compounds that do.

Of course, the fly in much waste-management ointment is economic feasibility. Waste management strategies must be effective and affordable before farmers will embrace them.

Van Kempen says many nutritional strategies are affordable. He cites lowering the pH of urine as an example. This can be accomplished by making phosphoric acid or adipic acid part of a pig’s diet. The additives are not expensive, and they may enhance animal performance, or growth, so some of the expense may be offset by better growth.

— Dave Caldwell

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Announcing some new releases!
Improved varieties are developed

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences plant breeders are constantly working to develop new and improved varieties, or cultivars, of various crops that grow faster or bigger or are less susceptible to pests. Following is a look at some of the College’s newest releases.

Cold-hardy peaches
Cold Hardy Peaches
All too often, North Carolina peach growers see substantial portions of their crop destroyed by late winter or early spring cold snaps. Three new cultivars, developed by Dr. Dennis Werner of the department of horticultural science, offer an alternative.

Named Challenger, Intrepid and China Pearl, the cultivars are unusually cold-hardy. It may be possible to grow them in the Piedmont, where growing peaches is tenuous at best. Challenger and Intrepid are yellow-flesh peaches that ripen in early July. China Pearl (see the Winter 1998-99 Perspectives) is a white-flesh peach that ripens around Aug. 1.

Columnar Peach TreePretty peaches
These ornamental peach cultivars don’t look much like peach trees. They’re long (up to 25 feet tall) and lean (3 to 5 feet wide). Their columnar habit inspired Werner, who also developed these cultivars, to use the term Corinthian in naming them.

The new cultivars are called Corinthian White, Corinthian Pink, Corinthian Rose and Corinthian Mauve. The names describe the color of the flowers produced by each cultivar.

Both the ornamental cultivars and the cold-hardy ones should be available from nurseries during the winter of 1999-2000.

Non-flowering and disease resistant tobacco
Oxford 414NF, a new flue-cured tobacco cultivar developed by Dr. Verne Sisson of the department of crop science, is only the second cultivar available to growers that is considered non-flowering and has high resistance to black shank, the most damaging disease with which North Carolina growers must contend.

The term non-flowering is actually a bit of a misnomer. Non-flowering cultivars produce flowers, but not until August or September. Other cultivars produce flowers in July.

Flowering is important to growers because with flowers come suckers, vegetative shoots that grow at the base of leaves. Because suckers rob the plants of energy that otherwise goes into producing leaves, growers spend time and money to get rid of them. Later flowering means fewer and smaller suckers and easier sucker control.

Oxford 414NF seed should be available to growers in time for the 2000 growing season.

—Dave Caldwell

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Successes and opportunities:
Sociologists gauge knowledge
of the College and agribusiness

North Carolina’s people — especially its leaders — have a positive image of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a solid appreciation of its teaching, research and extension mission, according to a recent survey.

N.C. State sociologists Dr. Tom Hoban and Dr. Bill Clifford are working to gather information about the public’s knowledge and attitudes toward agriculture; in the process, they have questioned 1,200 people across the state about their perception of the College. County commissioners and members of the state General Assembly accounted for 300 of those interviewed.

“There was less recognition of our programs among citizens, compared to leaders, but both groups showed strong support for all our roles, particularly those serving the public interest,” noted Hoban.

Hoban and Clifford's data chartHoban is a professor in the department of sociology and anthropology, and Clifford heads the department.

They found that a majority of people surveyed characterized the university’s research, undergraduate and graduate teaching, extension programs and adult continuing education as “very important” to the state. Some 79 percent of the citizens and 91 percent of the leaders ranked research as very important, while a lower percentage — 69 percent of citizens and 60 percent of leaders — viewed adult continuing education as very important.

Both groups also tended to give the university high marks for responsiveness: Ninety-five percent of the leaders and 78 percent of the citizens agreed or strongly agreed to the statement, “N.C. State University is responsive to the challenges facing North Carolina.”

When asked whether the College’s mission should be to educate students or to help farmers, leaders and citizens tended to favor student education. But a large number of leaders and citizens weren’t content to favor one function over another: More than 40 percent of leaders and citizens volunteered that the College should be doing both.

Hoban and Clifford said that such findings should yield valuable information that the college’s educators and administrators can use in building innovative programs that meet a real need for education in such areas as food safety, the environment and agriculture.

The study also could serve as a springboard for College marketing initiatives being undertaken by Bob Cairns. Cairns, formerly the university’s director of marketing and promotional writing, joined the College in January in the newly created position of college relations director.

“Nearly all of the leaders — 95 percent — and most of the citizens rated the university as responsive to the challenges facing the state. But most of the people interviewed said that we should be doing a better job of helping them understand our programs,” Cairns said.

To fully understand and appreciate the College’s programs and their value, North Carolinians need to become more knowledgeable about modern agriculture and its influence on the state, Cairns said.

To find out more about what people actually do know and think about agribusiness, Hoban and Clifford are continuing their study by interviewing small groups of people around the state. They also will be conducting a detailed segmentation analysis — finding out, for instance, if people in rural areas view agribusiness differently than do people in urban areas.

Earlier telephone surveys showed that North Carolinians in general aren’t fully aware of how little they spend on food compared to people in other countries. Meanwhile, they voiced considerable concern about food safety.

Still, they did place great value on agriculture’s contributions to the state’s economy. Indeed, 90 percent of citizens and leaders surveyed agreed that agriculture is the most basic occupation in society, with most other occupations depending on it, and even more agreed that economic problems in agriculture are likely to cause problems in the entire economy.

—Dee Shore

Editor’s Note: Coming issues of Perspectives will elaborate on Hoban and Clifford’s latest findings as they relate to North Carolina agribusiness.

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Extending upgrades:
Agent brings Y2K compliance expertise
to rural businesses and farms

If you don’t have milk for your cereal on Jan. 1, 2000, don’t blame Peggy Drechsler. An area-specialized dairy agent in Gaston County, Drechsler has been working since October to help farmers ensure that their computers are compliant for the year 2000. As a certified computer programmer with a degree in animal science, Drechsler has the unusual ability to combine her agricultural knowledge with technical computer skills.

Drechsler photoWith the anticipated arrival of the year 2000, there has been much talk about the Y2K problem that may affect computers when the year turns over. And while most personal computer users should not panic, farmers and other small-business operators who rely on date-sensitive software for record keeping must make sure that their systems will still work when the computer chip registers Jan. 1, 2000.

Extension agents, along with Extension Technology Services and other computing groups at North Carolina State University, are working to raise awareness, according to Mitch Owen, Extension computer training specialist based at N.C. State.

The concern is that problems will occur when the year rolls over from 1999 to 2000. In order to save space, most computers and computer-based equipment use a two-digit date for the year, such as 99 for the current year. When the year turns over to 00, there’s a possibility that computers will recognize this as 1900 rather than 2000. Such a glitch could cause computers to generate false data.

Large mainframe computer systems, like those storing many years of personnel data, could experience real problems, but organizations relying on such systems have been planning for Y2K for years. However, some rural communities, small businesses and farmers who rely on older personal computers and software remain vulnerable.

“This is a huge concern among users of old systems,” Owen said.

Some of the farmers Drechsler is working with keep their financial and production records on personal computers, many of which are more than five years old. Because financial records must be correct by date, these farmers need to become Y2K compliant. A number of farmers are using software that is no longer available, so they must find new software to manage financial records and make necessary computer upgrades.

Drechsler has programs that can check for Y2K compliance in computers and software. When she identifies problems with either, she helps farmers examine their options for upgrades, new equipment and software.

“Often, it is less expensive to purchase a new computer than it would be to upgrade an older one, because computer prices have come down so much,” she said.

Although Drechsler knows that there also may be compliance problems to deal with in other farm equipment, such as cold-storage equipment and computerized tractors and vehicles, she decided to work first on computers, then look at other potential equipment problems.

“I wanted to get people’s computers ready first to avoid having to transfer a whole year of data to a new software program,” she said.

Drechsler’s hands-on experience has proven very helpful to dairy operations and others she has assisted in Gaston, Cleveland and Lincoln counties. She stops by each farm, making Y2K transitions on a regular basis.

“I don’t just hand them the manuals and leave. I help them customize their systems and teach them how to use them. I also remain on call if they have problems adjusting to the new software.

“It’s very time-intensive work,” she said. “Once you start making changes on a system like this, the farmer can’t write checks until you finish. You want to be sure to get it right the first time.”

— Natalie Hampton

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A finer precision: Sensor will use
NIR technology to measure nutrients

Drs. Morimoto and McClureWhen Dr. Susumo Morimoto returns to his native Japan this summer, he will leave the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences having contributed to a research base that is closing the gap between the promise of precision farming and its everyday usefulness.

Morimoto has spent the past two years with the college as a visiting scholar on leave from his position with the Kubota Corp., one of the world’s leading agricultural equipment manufacturers. Through the College’s Bioinstrumentation Laboratory headed by Dr. William Fred McClure, Morimoto is designing and testing a hand-held device to help farmers apply fertilizers more efficiently.

If he’s successful, his device will help make precision farming more valuable. Precision farming, sometimes called site-specific farming, is an emerging technology that allows farmers to tap into satellite and computer technology to optimize production, applying fertilizers and pesticides only when and where they are needed. With this increased efficiency, farmers could save money and reduce environmental impacts.

One of the biggest hurdles to widespread use of precision farming, according to McClure, is the lack of suitable sensors that can immediately detect nutrient levels in crops. Without such sensors, farmers must take soil samples, then wait for laboratory results to tell how much and what type of fertilizer to apply. The problems of taking a representative soil sample, plus the time gap between analysis and application, lead to low correlation between soil maps and yield maps, the researchers say.

The device Morimoto is designing relies on near infrared, or NIR, technology to measure the level of one fertilizer component, nitrogen, in plants. If Morimoto’s sensor proves to be as reliable in the field as it has been in laboratory tests, soil mapping would be greatly enhanced by NIR data that show precisely where plants are in need of added nutrients.

There is even the possibility that satellite-based technology would no longer be needed. Morimoto and McClure envision a day when the sensor — or a combination of sensors — will provide the nutrient status of growing plants at the same time a fertilizer applicator moves through a field, adjusting the application rate automatically.

Morimoto chose to travel halfway around the world to work on the device so that he could work alongside McClure, one of the world’s leading experts in near infrared spectroscopy. Spectroscopy is the science that deals with the use of optical devices to analyze the interaction of light waves and matter. Different elements reflect waves of different lengths in the near infrared range — longer than those in the visible spectrum.

NIR technology is popular among scientists because it doesn’t damage plants, and it produces measurements quickly — in less than one-tenth of a second.

In Japan, Morimoto had developed an instrument to used NIR technology to measure the taste of rice and certain constituents that make up the grain. He became intrigued by the potential for the technology in precision farming. With substantial financial backing from Kubota, Morimoto arranged to work on developing and testing the device at N.C. State University.

Both McClure and Morimoto are cautiously optimistic about the potential of integrating near infrared technology with precision farming.

“We are getting promising results, but I don’t want to oversell it,” McClure says. “A lot remains unknown.”

Though disappointed that his stay at N.C. State will end before he is able to resolve those unknowns, Morimoto is satisfied that his experience will yield long-term benefits. He says:

“The exchange of knowledge and experience that both Kubota and the university gained should, in the long run, be of great benefit to farmers here and in Japan and around the world.”

— Dee Shore

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Toward healthy hearts

Give Your Heart a Healthy BeatIt was well past Valentine’s Day, but hearts were still very much on the minds of 440 visitors who turned out in late February at Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University for the kick-off of “Give Your Heart a Healthy Beat!” The program, designed to reduce the risks of stroke and heart disease among African-Americans, is a regional effort sponsored by Cooperative Extension centers in seven counties in the Mecklenburg County area, where Extension nutrition educators will conduct classes throughout the year.

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Focusing on global agriculture

Photo of Dean Jim Oblinger, Dr. August Schumacher, Dr. Jacques Diouf and Jim Graham The head of the world's leading international agricultural, forestry and fisheries organization visited the College of Agriculture and life Sciences in March as part of a two-day trip to the Triangle.

Dr. Jacques Diouf, director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, was in the United States to focus attention on global food security issues. He toured the College's Fish Barn and the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center, spoke with students and faculty, and delivered a talk on international agriculture and food security.

After his North Carolina visit, Diouf went to Washington, D.C., where he joined U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and co-chairs of the Interagency Working Group for Food Security for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's release of the U.S. Action Plan on Food Security.

The plan was developed in response to the FAO's 1996 World Food Summit, when the United States and 185 other nations committed to advancing food security and reducing by half the number of people who are undernourished no later than 2015.

The FAO works to improve nutrition and living standards, increase agricultural productivity and food security, and better conditions of rural populations worldwide.

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