Wichita As winter wheat harvest begins in southern states, fears about the spread of Karnal bunt have added new headaches in what already was shaping up to be a tough season in the wake of a drought that extends across much of the nation's wheat belt.
Kansas agriculture secretary Jamie Clover Adams said there is more coordination on Karnal bunt this harvest than there was last year, when the fungus was found in the midst of wheat harvest in northern Texas.
"It is fair to say we have been exposed I don't think there is any question about that," she said.
Kansas has no reported cases of Karnal bunt.
The fungus 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.
Since the discovery in northern Texas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has moved to deregulate Karnal bunt as a quarantined pest.
While the Kansas agriculture secretary and many other farm groups agree that Karnal bunt is more of a quality concern than a serious crop disease, they are concerned that other nations that buy U.S. wheat don't agree with that assessment and won't buy wheat from infested areas.
Most of the wheat exported from Kansas, for example, is shipped to countries that presently ban wheat from Karnal bunt areas. And Clover Adams said she is worried that the USDA is moving too quickly to deregulate it without coordination with the nation's trading partners.
"We are trying to figure out why USDA is doing some of the things they are doing. I think they are under tremendous pressure because of the economics in north Texas the impact it has had on people in the area, on business, on people's livelihood," she said.
An economic analysis by the Texas Cooperative Extension estimated Karnal bunt affected 2.8 million bushels of wheat from the four northern Texas counties, costing producers there $27 million.
USDA new plan
Meghan Thomas, a spokeswoman with the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the agency came up with a strategic plan to change its policy.
The USDA's new strategic plan, which will take several years to fully take effect, would change the status of Karnal bunt from a quarantined to a non-quarantined pest, Thomas said.
"I think the whole situation has put a lot of pressure on (USDA) to not regulate," Clover Adams said. "We understand and empathize with the economic situation in Texas, but we have our own producers to be concerned about."
About 400,000 acres in Young, Baylor, Throckmorton and Archer counties were placed under a five-year quarantine to minimize the negative impact on the nation's $4.9 billion wheat exports.
As custom cutters get ready to roll in the nation's southernmost wheat fields, Kansas agriculture officials are dusting off their own emergency response plans should the disease be found in the state.
Among them is the immediate quarantine of an infected facility by Kansas agricultural officials, rather than wait for the USDA to act.
"We are not going to sit and wait for them to come. The quicker the response, the better the chance to isolate and keep damage to a small area," Clover Adams said.
Custom cutters lose work
In the Texas outbreak last year, it took seven days before USDA officials confirmed the reported case and 15 days before the first USDA quarantine orders were issued. By that time, many custom cutters had already moved on to other jobs in Oklahoma and Kansas.
Many custom harvesters are refusing this season to go into the quarantined Texas counties, said Robert Bell, a Kansas custom cutter with his own farm near Kingman. Those that do face strict equipment cleaning requirements imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as a time-consuming paperwork trail.
"I've heard some cutters say they are not going to mess with it," Bell said. "It is not worth it."