Life after E. coli

Agronomists and consultants are finding life on the farm altered going into this year’s vegetable deal as last year’s E. coli scare has thrown microorganisms into the forefront of crop management decisions.

“The events of last October have changed the way we do business today and in the future,” said Frank Sances, a research science consultant in the coastal vegetable business. “We are in a different world now. E. coli has changed the way we do business in everyday life.”

Sances said the E. coli episode, traced to Salinas Valley spinach last season, has gained international attention and had a ripple effect on the California fresh fruit and vegetable business that he calls “remarkable.”

And PCAs have had to adjust quickly.

“The day of the PCA saying he’s an entomologist is gone - he’s a technical adviser to the grower,” Sances said.

At Pacific Ag Research in San Luis Obispo, Sances said he has hired a microbiologist and modified his plant pathology lab to accommodate microbes of importance in food borne illness. Pacific Ag Research traditionally has focused on product efficacy testing, agricultural engineering, chemical evaluations and other projects designed to apply science to problems in agriculture.

Everyone, from growers to consultants and government agents, is now racing for information to better understand how microorganisms react in the environment and through the chain of distribution from the field to the shelf to the table.

“Growers are out there learning as they go, testing new methods of mammal exclusion, elimination of microbes in water supplies, deciding the economics of water treatment systems, and forming alliances with folks they may not have that much in common with,” Sances said.

“What’s remarkable to me is the fact that, while I’m pretty well schooled in the sciences, there are growers who know so much more than I do and have so much more information. They have come up to speed very quickly.”

PCAs, he said, have become an important partner in this arena as microorganisms become a dominant component in decisions made in the field, such as the type of fertilizer applied, irrigation water sources, and field monitoring.

“The PCA is the technical advisor to the grower regarding his inputs. He has to have a broad knowledge to be able to converse on many levels with the grower,” Sances said. “It’s the responsibility of the PCA to be cognizant of what is happening in the field and to alert growers to issues – he’s the footprint out there on a weekly basis.”

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