Monday, November 22, 2021

WSDA Works – Plant services team keeps plants safe and healthy

Amber Betts
WSDA Communications

A nursery. 

Have you ever wondered why we don’t see more plants with disease and pests in our nurseries? It’s in large part thanks to the folks in the WSDA Plant Services Program (to name a few).

Early Beginnings

The work of the Plant Services Program began in the 1890s, well before WSDA formed in 1913. Back then, there were about 250 licensees that needed inspection to ensure plants offered for sale were free of harmful pests and plant diseases. Now, there are more than 5,600 licensed nurseries and 11 environmental specialists (also known as nursery and export inspectors) statewide. 

The daily life of plant services inspectors

WSDA inspectors like Sherry and Sue monitor nursery plants for diseases, pests, and overall health. Sherry inspects nurseries, monitors areas like Grandview for Japanese beetles, and assists local nurseries and other plant-related businesses with licensing requirements.

Sherry checks a trap for
Japanese beetle at outside
of a local nursery.

Sherry completes export inspections for hay, straw, hops, fruit trees, pollen, irises, lumber, potatoes, and logs. She says she loves learning more about agriculture in Washington State.

Since the outbreak of Japanese beetle in Grandview, Washington last year, Sherry has been busy keeping an eye out when inspecting the local nurseries. She also sets traps in the surrounding area, regularly checking and reporting her findings. In 2021, she found no Japanese beetles in her traps that surround all the nurseries in the Sunnyside and Grandview areas. Pest program coworkers set traps within city limits, and their catch totaled more than 24,000, but Sherry focused on nurseries, and making sure we weren’t transporting these pesky beetles across county or state lines with the sale of plants.  

Right now teams at WSDA are considering expanding the current quarantine to include moving soil and plants outside of the infestation. Sherry and her team will be a big part of that work, too. The variety of work she does is what keeps her job exciting and enjoyable.

“Coming from Illinois, the land of corn and soybeans, it’s amazing to see the variety of crops in the Yakima Valley and the whole state,” she said.

Poinsettias in a greenhouse. 

During nursery inspections, our plant services inspectors perform quarantine enforcement, ensuring protocols are being followed to ensure plants aren’t carrying pests when they travel, and when new pests arrive, they assist with the detection and subsequent quarantine steps.

The division’s mission statement says it all:

“The Plant Services Program is committed to facilitating agricultural trade and ensuring consumer protection by providing accurate and reliable inspection, testing and certification of agricultural plant products, and serving on the front line of defense against the introduction and spread of pests.”

Between our 11 inspectors, we certify more than $2 billion in agricultural products for export annually, and conduct hundreds of inspections. They inspect thousands of bare-root fruit trees for export to Canada each spring, they certify log and lumber exports, hay exports from Kittitas County, and provide planting stock, tree fruit, and grapevine certification. 

Sue inspects the ground where the trees are
shaken to rid them of pests before export.

Right now, our inspector Sue is making the rounds to inspect and certify Christmas trees pest-free for export. In order to prevent spreading pests, Sue and other inspectors visit tree farms during harvest. The trees are mechanically shaken to rid the tree of any potential pest. Then the trees are baled and shipped. Sue closely looks at a percentage of the trees during the process, and even inspects the needles that fall in the shaking process. If there are no pests found, the trees are certified and ready to ship.

Sue also inspects the many varieties of poinsettias growing in greenhouses in Mossyrock, set to hit holiday centerpieces next month.

Washington is fourth in the nation for Christmas tree production, and produces holiday greens used for a variety of celebrations at this time of the year.

There are nearly 400 Christmas tree farms statewide, the top-producing counties are Lewis, Mason, Clark, Pierce, and Thurston for cut trees. Noble and Douglas fir trees are the most popular Christmas trees sold in Washington, accounting for 90 percent of all sales.

Many of Washington's Christmas trees are exported to Hawaii, California, Canada, Mexico, Asia and U.S. military bases worldwide.

What the future holds

Close-up inspection of
Christmas tree needles. 

The Plant Services Program has some exciting plans for the future. They are currently exploring whether they can employ drones to inspect remote sites or utilize dog teams to sniff out plant viruses and fungal pathogens. They also plan to increase online enforcement efforts, facilitate the movement of hemp plant products, and build a planting stock certification center in Prosser, including labs, offices, and meeting space.

Ensuring that Washington plants are exported pest free will require an ongoing partnership between our Plant Services inspectors and those in the plant industry continuing to follow best practices and quarantine rules. Visit our website to learn more about Plant Services.