College of Ag Sciences faculty, staff honored for plum pox eradication

University Park, Pa. -- Seven members of the faculty and staff in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences received an Honor Award from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Aug. 3 for their efforts in helping to wipe out plum pox virus in Pennsylvania. USDA Honor Awards recognize accomplishments that help ensure access to safe, nutritious and balanced meals for America's children.

The seven were members of the Pennsylvania Plum Pox Eradication Project Team, which was comprised of USDA and Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture officials and scientists, as well as Penn State horticulturists, plant pathologists, entomologists and extension specialists.

"Today, I am proud to honor those who have gone above and beyond in their work to create prosperity and better quality of life for the people who need it most," Vilsack said.

Among those honored were John Halbrendt, associate professor of plant pathology; Greg Krawczyk, senior research associate in the Department of Entomology; Fred Gildow, professor and head of plant pathology, James Travis, professor emeritus of plant pathology; Tara Baugher, extension educator at the Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville; Lynn Kime, senior extension associate in Biglerville; and William Kleiner, Southeast Region director for Penn State Cooperative Extension.

When plum pox was discovered in Adams County peach trees in October 1999 -- the first time the disease had been found in North America -- the aphid-spread virus threatened to wipe out the state's $25 million annual production of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines and cherries. The nation's stone-fruit growers watched anxiously to see how Pennsylvania would respond.

Thanks to quick action by state and federal officials, Penn State researchers and extension educators, and local growers, the virus was contained and eventually eliminated. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture officially lifted the quarantine of the area's stone fruit on Oct. 29, 2009 -- certifying the state as plum-pox free for 10 years and declaring that the collaborative eradication effort had averted an agricultural catastrophe.

In its narrative about the award, USDA noted that Penn State personnel produced an educational documentary in a month, shortly after the detection of plum pox, for use in educating people about the disease. "This film included interviews with the growers, packers, nurseries, scientists and regulators that captured each of their concerns, fears, and the uncertainty of the situation."

Also, USDA stated, Penn State personnel from the University's Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville took on surveys of aphid populations and host plants, providing valuable information used by state and federal program managers to adjust survey protocols and strategies. "Agricultural Research Services and Penn State scientists collected and reared aphid colonies," the award narrative continued, "which enabled them to conduct virus-transmission studies."

Gildow, whose research on the aphid vectors of plum pox was pivotal in stopping the spread of the virus, said the Penn State members of the eradication team are honored to have been recognized by Vilsack and realize they were involved a remarkable effort.

"To the best of my knowledge, this is one of the best-documented cases in which a foreign invasive plant pathogen has been eradicated effectively," he said. "This occurred only as a result of the very rapid response of the combined PDA-USDA-Penn State collaboration team and the rapid infusion of sufficient state and federal funding to effectively support eradication efforts.

"Most important was the complete understanding, cooperation and support of the Pennsylvania fruit growers, which was essential for success."

Last Updated January 09, 2015