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Fungal Research to benefit Nova Scotia Onion Growers

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Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cepae (FOC), Fusarium basal rot has a big impact on onion growers in Nova Scotia. The disease, potentially affecting an onion crop at any stage of development, can lead to rotting onions from the inside out and is not immediately visible to the growers. In fact, growers often only see the evidence of the problem, once the stored onions are prepared for shipment, at which point they must be discarded.   

Each year about 20 percent of the onion crop is lost to Fusarium basal rot, representing a loss of $600,000 of the farm gate value (Nova Scotia’s annual onion production represents a farm gate value of ~ $3 million, production volume of 9,747 tonnes). Naturally, for Nova Scotia's four major commercial onion growers, this problem needs to be solved and Horticulture Nova Scotia has identified the disease as a serious threat to the province’s onion industry. The growers have reported that FOC is overwintering in the soil and spreading between fields and even a seven- to 10-year rotation doesn't fully kill the spores of FOC.

Bringing into play the work that Springboard Atlantic and its members do, Acadia Universities Industry Liaison Officers had already built a relationship with Horticulture Nova Scotia and at a Springboard sponsored Industry Engagement event in late 2014, the connection between Dr. Allison Walker, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, and the onion growers were made.

From this initial connection, and with continued support from Acadia's Industry Liaison Officers, a plan was hatched and funding was arranged, enabling Dr.Walker and master’s student Adèle Bunbury-Blanchette to work on investigating what could combat FOC and protect Annapolis Valley onions.

Dr. Walker and Ms. Bunbury-Blanchette, have narrowed down the pool of biocontrol options, and the one with the most promise for real-world use will emerge. The Acadia team is planning for at least one more year of work on the project. The team is also working on finding a molecular diagnostic tool to pick up evidence of the pathogen in soil samples based on its unique DNA sequence. This will allow growers to predict which fields are best for onions and which should be avoided.

The opportunity to work with local producers on an industry problem for researchers like Dr. Walker and students like Ms. Bunbury-Blanchette, as well as the six other students who have also been working on the project, is a unique one.

“They’ve been great to work with because they work really collaboratively,” said Walker, adding that the experience also lends an interesting and accessible narrative to the Acadia team’s academic work. “Applied research makes it easy to tell the story of why what you’re doing is important.”

We are delighted to see this project #springboarding forward and want to extend our warm congratulations to everyone involved.

To read the full article in Farm Focus, click here.

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash