"In a good year you could take beans, spray them a couple times for weeds and have made money," said Jeff House, an agronomy specialist for the New Madrid County Extension office.
But last year's discovery in New Madrid and Pemiscot counties of Asian soybean rust -- a fungus that can wipe out an entire crop -- forced agriculture officials to take a different approach this year.
Last fall the University of Missouri Soybean Rust Management Team developed a plan to combat the disease. The team created an educational project to inform farmers about rust through literature and several conferences last winter.
"University of Missouri Extension's regional agronomists are also scouting at least one field in each county twice weekly," said Dr. J. Allen Wrather, a plant pathologist at Missouri Delta Center in Portageville. "If rust is found in Missouri or a nearby state, we'll inform the public and alert them it's present and action should be taken."
Diagnosing rust is difficult because the symptoms look very similar to other diseases and requires at least a 20-power magnifying glass to see structures that indicate rust, Wrather explained.
"Without some training most farmers wouldn't be able to distinguish it from other diseases," Wrather said.
Currently rust is only known in a few fields in Florida, Georgia, southern Mississippi and across the border of Alabama, Wrather said. No rust lesions have been found on soybeans or on anything else; however a few spores of the pathogen that resemble rust were found in eastern Tennessee and western Kentucky, he said.
This year's increased scouting was because researchers were pretty sure soybean rust was introduced by Hurricane Ivan last year, House said.
So when Hurricane Dennis blew in early July, agriculture officials took notice. "It was felt that if Hurricane Dennis blew up rust, we should've started picking rust up by July 20. We still are not picking up anything, and everything is still good," House said.
Also the intense heat and lack of rain the area has experienced created an environment that rust will not develop in because rust needs moist, tropical-
like conditions to live, House said.
"We've never really looked at rust in the drought stress we've had," House said. "We were really going slow, but since the rain, the beans have taken off and there's yield potential there."
Typically spraying fungicide will bring farmers extra money, but the lack of rain prompted many farmers to hold off on fungicide, House said.
Before the hurricane, farmers were not spraying a fungicide, and now there's been more fungicide use in New Madrid County than has ever been sprayed, House noted.
Wrather advised farmers not to wait until rust is found in their field before spraying.
"The assumption is if rust is in fields five to 10 miles down the road, then it's in yours, too," Wrather said.
Observation, proper timing and proper application are needed to prevent loss if rust is detected, House said. But it must be done in a very small time window, he added.
"An insecticide can see a yield increase that goes above the cost of application, but it's all in the timing. You have to observe the crop intimately," House said.
In addition to worrying about rust and drought, farmers had to absorb the high cost of diesel fuel, the high cost of seeds and the cost of chemicals, House said.
"We had a dry spell followed by rain, blazing heat and beans can't compensate for that," House said.
After Hurricane Dennis, most areas received 4-10 inches of rain with diseases like Phytophthora and Sudden Death Syndrome showing up in some fields. However, there's not a lot of insect activity in the soybeans.
Brown spot also showed up this year, and it resembles rust and caused a lot of panic, House said.
"I heard farmers saying they had never seen it before," House said.
But House noted these diseases don't affect yields the way rust does.
"We're dealing with Mother Nature, and she's going to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it," House said. "All we can do is sit back and watch -- and stay on top of it."
For more information about soybean rust, visit the American Soybean Association's Web site: www.soyrap.com.