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OSU Extension honors contributions of plant diagnostic group to Oklahoma

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Photo of laboratory diagnosticians with their award.
Oklahoma State’s Sara Wallace, Jen Olson and Zachary Royko (left to right) provided key diagnostic services in helping to successfully combat sudden oak death in Oklahoma. (Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services)

Oklahoma State University Extension honored its Pram Eradication Group on Jan. 7 with the state agency’s 2020 Outstanding Faculty and Field Staff Group Award. The distinction recognized the group’s successful efforts to combat an Oklahoma plant disease emergency.

Sudden oak death is a federally recognized disease that affects 150 species and can be fatal to plants. Caused by the pathogen Phytophthora ramorum, or Pram for short, the emergency began in 2019 when a 200-acre Cherokee County nursery received infected plants.

“Unfortunately, tests indicated the pathogen had spread at the nursery and the workers did not have enough information to manage the problem effectively,” said Jen Olson, OSU Extension associate specialist with the university’s Plant Disease and Insect Diagnostic Laboratory. “Some of the plants were shipped before the problem was noticed.”

Cherokee County Extension Agricultural Educator Roger Williams, who retired later in 2019, worked with Olson to create an educational program designed to improve worker knowledge and awareness as a first step. It was a great start, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020. Undaunted and still faced with the prospect of a spreading plant disease, the Pram Eradication Group simply got more creative, employing social-distancing safeguards while developing easy-to-use management strategies. As for the laboratory staff, they reorganized to collectively work around the clock to provide timely testing.

As a collaboration between OSU Extension, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, among others, the group developed innovative labeling and sampling techniques to improve efficiency and safety at nurseries while playing a major role in the inspection of more than 4 million plants from June 2019 through November 2020. Test results as of Jan. 5 have not detected the presence of Pram in Oklahoma.

“Consumers can now buy plants from the nursery without worrying that an exotic plant pathogen will spread and kill other plants,” Olson said. “The strategies developed improve surveying efficiency and can benefit people, horticultural operations and landscapes elsewhere as well.”

A job well done, but not one that was without risk – to more than plants. Many members of the Pram Eradication Group were either in the at-risk category for COVID-19 or had high-risk family members. The decision to continue Pram survey operations was not made lightly, and to say that safety protocols were followed diligently would be an understatement, Olson said.

In addition to Olson and Williams, group members included Sara Wallace and Zachary Royko of the OSU Plant Disease and Insect Diagnostic Laboratory; Joe Rackley, Jarrod Sanders, Rusty Patzack, Dray Williams, Richie London, John Nunnery, Ken Newton and Kenny Naylor of ODAFF; Aaron Edwards and Everett Dale of USDA; and State Plant Health Director Blaine Powell.

OSU Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology faculty and staff provide in-service training opportunities for Extension educators and collaborating partners who often are the frontline in discovering and dealing with serious plant and insect issues, said Phil Mulder, department head.

“The laboratory typically receives 4,000 to 5,000 specimens per year that need diagnostics and management recommendations,” he said. “The Pram outbreak certainly added additional pressure on the team. They responded quickly and efficiently to address the emergency head-on.”

OSU Extension is one of two state agencies administered by the university’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and is a key part of OSU’s state and federally mandated teaching, research and Extension land-grant mission.

MEDIA CONTACT: Donald Stotts | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-4079 | donald.stotts@okstate.edu

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