- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Federal officials are taking public comments on possible methods to deal with a microscopic pest that has infested potato fields in southeastern Idaho.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will accept comments through May 28 on the supplemental environmental assessment that looks at ways to combat the pale cyst nematode.

The new document covers all of Bingham and Bonneville counties and replaces a 2007 document covering about 10,000 regulated acres, said Jonathan Jones, national policy manager with the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“It was time for something more robust, which is what this is,” he said.

Discovery of the pale cyst nematode in Idaho in 2006 was the first detection of the pest in the United States, and authorities have been battling it ever since.

Tina Gresham, the Agriculture Department’s director of the pale cyst nematode program, said treatments of the 26 infested fields have resulted in 17 fields now having no detectable viable pale cyst nematodes.

Of those 17, eight have reached a point where they are eligible to return to potato production, though they remain regulated.

“That’s been a significant milestone for the eradication program,” Gresham said.

In the supplemental environmental assessment, the federal agency’s preferred alternative remains eradicating the worms that feed at the roots of potato plants and can reduce crop production by 80 percent.

But the preferred alternative method of achieving eradication is different from the 2007 document, Jones said.

Specifically, the preferred alternative eliminates fall applications of methyl bromide, which some farmers say has caused health problems with cattle. Instead, Telone II would be applied.

The preferred alternative also calls for planting litchi tomato in the spring. Jones said the plant attracts the pale cyst nematode but the worms die before reproducing.

Idaho in 2015 had about 324,000 acres in potato production, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The agency says Idaho led the nation in 2015 by producing 13 billion pounds of potatoes, about 30 percent of the nation’s potato crop, with an estimated value of $900 million.

Eliminating the pest in Idaho is important for trade reasons. Japan, for example, still refuses to import Idaho potatoes after the initial discovery.

“There’s a lot of evidence that this is working well,” Jones said of the treatments. “There’s a very good probability - not chance, probability - that we can eradicate this in Idaho.”

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