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FARMERS: USDA mishandled disease response while crippling wheat disease spread

Updated:

ANTHONY, Kan. (AP) _ Bureaucratic bungling by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has allowed the spread of a plant disease that could prove as devastating to wheat exports as foot-and-mouth disease has been to livestock, farm groups said.

Wheat growers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas say the USDA responded too slowly to an outbreak of Karnal bunt at the southernmost edge of the nation's wheat belt just as harvest was getting underway.

Karnal bunt is a fungus that is harmless to people but sours the taste and smell of flour made from infected kernels. It also slightly cuts production in infected fields.

The disease's main impact is economic: 80 countries ban imports of wheat grown in infected regions.

That could be as crippling for American growers, who last year produced nearly $6 billion of wheat, as would be the discovery of foot-and-mouth disease in U.S. livestock, said Brett Myers, executive vice president for the Kansas Wheat Growers Association.

Europe's foot-and-mouth outbreak has cost millions of dollars for the slaughter of some 3 million animals and a ban on exports.

The suspected Karnal bunt contamination was first reported to the USDA on May 25, said Michael Bryant, co-owner of the elevator in Olney, Texas, that found it.

``Our hearts were sinking down in our stomach wondering what to do _ we chose to do the right thing,'' Bryant said.

But it took seven days before the USDA's Animal and Plant Inspection Service confirmed the finding, and 15 days before it quarantined the first affected counties.

``Their reaction to the situation was not as timely as we would have liked,'' Kansas Agriculture Secretary Jamie Clover Adams said.

Charles Schwalbe, director of APHIS' plant protection and quarantine program, said his agency sent the sample away for testing at a national lab instead of using a local one to make sure it had accurate and legally defensible information before taking action.

``The decisions that emerge ... mean livelihood to people from time to time,'' Schwalbe said.

The Karnal bunt found in Throckmorton and Young counties in Texas were the first confirmed cases in the nation's wheat belt, an area extending from central Texas to Alberta, Canada.

On June 19, concern widened as the USDA added neighboring Archer County to the quarantined area, followed by Baylor County the next day. One elevator has also been quarantined in Fort Worth, about 150 miles southeast.

Karnal bunt, which originated in India, was first detected in the United States in 1996 in Arizona and California. It has since spread to southern Texas and New Mexico.

In Arizona, the amount of land used to grow wheat dropped almost 50 percent after a quarantine was imposed in 1996 in four counties, according to the Arizona Agricultural Statistics Service.

But Arizona is a minor durum wheat producer, and U.S. wheat growers have reassured overseas buyers that the disease was far from the nation's major winter wheat producing region. Winter wheat, which is planted in the fall and harvested in spring, accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. wheat and is used primarily for bread. Durum wheat is used for pasta.

With half the winter wheat going to the export market, the discovery of the disease at the southernmost edge of the nation's breadbasket just as the wheat harvest was moving north sent shock waves through the wheat belt.

State regulators feared custom harvesters _ cutters who follow the ripening wheat harvest from Texas to the Canadian border _ would spread the fungus.

Oklahoma, just 50 miles from the two Texas counties where the disease was first discovered, immediately closed its borders and ordered combines coming into the state to be blocked and inspected. Harvesters from infected areas without a USDA certification of cleanliness were turned back.

And fear spread north to Kansas, the nation's biggest wheat producer with a $1 billion wheat crop and nearly 10 billion planted acres each year

``We need to preserve our heritage and our wheat industry. The spread of Karnal bunt in Texas should be considered a threat to Kansas wheat,'' Kansas Gov. Bill Graves said.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has been pursuing the issue following a request from growers for a Congressional investigation into the USDA's handling. His office said he has not decided whether to ask for an inquiry.

Among those wanting answers are custom harvester Darryl Emerson, who had finished loading his last truckloads of wheat in Texas when the USDA quarantined the county where he was cutting.

Emerson, of Cavalier, N.D., said he would never have gone to Texas had he known an elevator had first reported Karnal bunt in the area two weeks earlier.

It took him three days to disinfect his combine, trucks and other harvesting equipment. He called the farm where he had his next cutting job and was told to stay away.

``I was really counting on it _ it was a pretty nice job,'' he said.

Bryant said his elevator has already lost $200,000 for the infected wheat and at least another $200,000 in cleaning costs and lost business.

If he had it to do over again, Bryant said he would keep quiet about the Karnal bunt and blend the contaminated wheat with the rest of the crop until it could not be detected.

``I encourage any elevator operator in the country _ if this is the way it is going to be handled _ to do the same thing,'' he said.
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