SARE grant should help SE peach growers improve peach tree health

A Clemson University team, with the help of a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, is conducting research to fight back by developing holistic strategies to improve disease management and peach tree health.

The goal of the project is to improve sustainability of the Southeast’s peach production,

focusing on bacterial canker and bacterial spot diseases.

Bacterial spot and bacterial canker cause an estimated $22 million in annual losses in South Carolina and Georgia. Bacterial spot can lead to severe defoliation of leaves and spots on fruit significantly reduce marketable yields. Bacterial canker on woody tissues leads to shoot death and tree death. Managing these diseases is very challenging.

The research team consists of Clemson experts on the university’s main campus and research stations across the state: Hehe Wang, a plant bacteriologist and pathologist housed at the Edisto Research and Education Center (REC) near Blackville, South Carollina; Rongzhong Ye, a soil scientist housed at the Pee Dee REC near Florence, South Carolina; and on the main campus in Clemson, South Carolina, plant pathologist Guido Schnabel and pomologist Juan Carlos Melgar in the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department and Michael Vassalos, an associate professor of agribusiness in the Agricultural Sciences Department.

“Currently, no chemical control options are available for management of bacterial canker and bacterial spot management mainly relies on weekly sprays of copper and antibiotics during the growing season,” Wang said. “These chemicals could negatively impact the environment and have led to emergence of copper-tolerant and antibiotic-resistant pathogens, indicating an even greater need for new management options.”

There are no cultivars with absolute resistance to either of the two diseases. Just a few cultivars are tolerant to bacterial spot and no cultivar has tolerance to bacterial canker.

During the study, researchers will work with peach producers and a team of plant pathologists, horticulturists, soil biogeochemists, economists and entomologists to manage bacterial diseases, improve tree health and performance, enhance soil and boost profits for peach growers in the Southeast.

“We will conduct outreach activities to assist peach producers with adoption of new spray programs and soil practices,” Wang said. “We also will share our results with the scientific community, as well as increase equity of underserved producers in the southeastern United States.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion in peach production

Of the 270 commercial peach farms in South Carolina, few are owned or operated by underserved producers. Historically farmers considered underserved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) include: American Indians or Alaskan Natives, Asians, Blacks or African Americans, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders and Hispanics. During this project, Clemson researchers will work with the Sierra Club, and Clemson Extension’s South Carolina New and Beginning Farmer program (SCNBFP) and South Carolina Women’s Ag Network (SCWAgN) to develop relationships with these producers

“The goal is to inquire the possibility of getting them into peach production and to conduct a needs assessment to find out what technical information they need to start growing peaches,” Wang said. “During this project, we will help underserved peach producers by providing trainings on our new organic practices to improve the sustainability of their farms. We also will work towards bringing more underserved producers back into the peach industry.”

Robert Jackson owns Jackson Farms II in Lyman, South Carolina. Peaches and other fruits, as well as vegetables and fresh cut flowers have been grown on the farm for more than 20 years. Jackson serves on the project’s advisory committee.

“Bacterial spot and bacterial canker are two of the most serious problems we have with our peaches,” Jackson said. “We need new and better control solutions. Research from this project will be used to develop new sustainable practices to control these two diseases, as well as improve soil health and food safety.”

In addition to developing new controls for bacterial canker and bacterial spot, Jackson also said he is pleased the project involves attracting more minority producers back into peach production.

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