This was my third year to be invited to teach sessions at the Pana Junior High Career Fair. Many students said they loved hearing about different occupations, from massage therapist, mortician, to nurse practitioner. It was my turn to let them know the importance of a plant pathologist, or a person that studies plant diseases, and their contribution to agriculture or horticulture by visiting 10 stations throughout the room.
At Station 1, I had all the students raise their hand if they were Irish! We learned that they might be here because of a potato disease, called late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine during the 1840's. They also learned the ergot of rye disease was eaten and caused severe restrictions of blood vessels, which led to limbs falling off. This was known as "holy fire" or "St. Anthony's Fire" during the middle ages. It could also cause people to have hallucinations and has been linked to the Salem witch trials. Lastly, do you know why the British drink tea? During the 1800's, coffee rust devastated the coffee crop, so they had to switch their drink of choice to tea.
At Station 2, they learned that wheat is a staple food for humans and how we have struggled with diseases of wheat such as rusts and smut throughout history. Today, in Illinois, we have identified stripe rust. Plant pathologists and wheat breeders work hard to keep our wheat healthy so we can have breads, pastries, pasta, and noodles!
At Station 3, they discovered that fungus is always among us and you are actually breathing fungal spores right now! Most plant diseases are caused by fungal pathogens. However, we eat fungus, like mushrooms, but be careful not to eat any that are poisonous! Other fungi are important because they break down organic matter, such as wood in your yard or the strawberries in your fridge.
At Station 4, they realized how important crops such cotton and flax are because they are used to make cloth! Without them, Burrus would not have caps, shirts, jackets, or blankets to give away!
At Station 5, they learned the importance of trees, especially oaks, since they are the state tree of Illinois! They can be infected by plant disease and injured by nonliving factors. Oak wilt is a disease of oaks and can be avoided if we do not prune in the spring. Galls on oaks are caused by a tiny wasp, and make trees unsightly! A disease that you might find at home on your ornamental pear or apple in the spring is called Fireblight, a disease caused by bacteria. Why are trees important? Without them we would not have oxygen, paper, desks, pencils, houses, baseball bats, or bowling pins.
At Station 6, they learned that plant diseases can also be caused by viruses. Viral diseases plague mainly fruits, vegetables, and ornamentals. They are controlled by implementing biotechnology. One viral disease of tulips, called tulip break, was used for good and not evil. Once the tulip was infected, it caused the tulips to have cool designs on the petals. These could be propagated and sold for a lot of money! Without healthy flowers, there would be no flowers for Mom on Mother's Day or for your sweetheart on Valentine's Day! Check out our awesome, Burrus Agronomy Intern, Maggie Prather, in the background!
At Station 7, they learned that corn could get diseases on ears, stalk, and roots. As an agronomist and Certified Crop Advisor (CCA), I help to advise farmers on how to make wise economic and environmental choices on how to treat these diseases. Without corn, there would be no beef and many other products. Did you know that food grade corn from Illinois is used to make Doritos? Corn makes products sweet and helps to fill our gas tanks.
At Station 8, they learned the main pest (or disease) of soybeans was not caused by a fungus, bacteria, or virus. The main pest of soybeans is a tiny, round worm called a nematode! This pest causes farmers to lose millions in yield each year. As an agronomist and CCA, I help farmers choose varieties with resistance or suggest seed treatments for pests like this. As an Illinois Soybean Association Soy Envoy, I blog, podcast, and video soybean problems and solutions, so farmers can keep their soybean yields high, in order to have food, crayons, sweetness, soaps, cosmetics, and so much more!
At Station 9, we discussed the fact that we must try to keep some nasty plant diseases out of our country, states, or counties by exclusion or quarantines, to keep our crops safe. This is why the USDA is extra careful about keeping fruits, vegetables, and other plants out of our country at ports of entry.
At Station 10, we went over all of the different ways throughout history that humans have tried to control plant disease.
Lastly, we asked a bonus question: What was one of the most important human medicines made from a fungus? One shy, little, red headed girl was the only one to answer, "Penicillium". She wants to be a biologist when she grows up and she made my day!