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Peach growers are hopeful that Clemson University researchers can cure a root disease affecting their crops.
Peach growers are hopeful that Clemson University researchers can cure a root disease affecting their crops.
Volunteering & Giving
July 29, 2016

As disease spreads, researchers hope to give peaches a chance

Peach growers all over the Southeast are hopeful that Clemson University researchers (funded in part by Wells Fargo) can cure a root disease affecting their crops.

Peach cobbler. Peach salsa. Peach ice cream. These summertime dishes all share a sweet, juicy ingredient — one that is currently in danger.

Peaches in the Southeast U.S. are succumbing to Armillaria root rot, a fungus that destroys peach trees and other fruit crops. It moves through the soil and attaches to tree roots, using the very trees it infects to spread the disease.

“This has been our No. 1 concern for at least 10 years,” says Chalmers Carr, owner of Titan Farms of Ridge Spring, South Carolina, the largest peach producer on the East Coast. “We have no cure, and the trees have no resistance to it.”

“We have no cure, and the trees have no resistance to it.”

Armillaria root rot is estimated to cause about $6 million in annual peach losses in just South Carolina, according to Clemson University. The problem is worse during years of excessive rain and moisture, Chalmers says, and the only temporary fix so far is to plant the trees on a raised bed and remove the soil around the tree when it takes root. But the process is difficult, not always successful, and at best only adds a few years of life to the trees, he adds.

“These farms have been planting peaches for years,” Chalmers says. “We can’t just move to other land. Peaches are grown in certain regions of the Southeast because of that area’s ability to produce them reliably year after year. We’re planting the trees back with no cure, but the trees are a conduit and help spread the disease. The more you plant, the more you spread across a field. We helped spread a disease we didn’t know was there.”

In search of a science-based solution

Chalmers and other farmers are hoping scientists can find a way to prevent the disease. In 2015, Wells Fargo awarded Clemson University a $150,000 agriculture grant through the Clean Technology and Innovation grant program for the research. Through the grant, Clemson scientists are working across multiple disciplines to find a natural genetic resistance to Armillaria root rot.

“Being able to support world-class agricultural research at Clemson University in a collaborative manner, while also making a potentially significant impact in the peach industry, was exciting for our East Coast National Food and Agribusiness group,” says Mark Forbes, commercial relationship manager for Wells Fargo. “The peach industry is highly relevant to the agribusiness sector. We wanted to be a part of this challenging endeavor that will support peach farmers across the country.”

Clemson University’s Dr. Ksenija Gasic and Dr. Juan Carlos Melgar inspect peaches inside a lab.
Researchers at Clemson study everything about peaches.
Dead peach trees in a South Carolina orchard.
Hybrid rootstocks like this one are being developed with natural levels of tolerance to Armillaria root rot.

Geneticist Dr. Ksenija Gasic (left) and pomologist Dr. Juan Carlos Melgar inspect peaches inside a lab at Clemson University’s Musser Fruit Research Farm.

Researchers at Clemson study everything about peaches from taste to weight to circumference.

Dead peach trees (killed by Armillaria root rot) in a South Carolina orchard.

Hybrid rootstocks like this one are being developed with natural levels of tolerance to Armillaria root rot.

Titan Farms has endured the effects of the disease for years; it experienced the worst of it in 2015. “My farm has 660,000 peach trees, and we lost about 37,000 of them in 2015,” Chalmers says. “That was about a $1.8 million economic loss. It’s devastating, to say the least.”

Chalmers lost about 5.6 percent of the farm’s peach trees that year — a substantial increase from the 1 or 2 percent of peach trees that succumbed to root rot in previous years. He says other farms are currently losing about 4 to 5 percent of their peach trees, as well.

That’s why he and other peach growers are hopeful researchers at Clemson will be successful in finding a solution.

“When you assemble a team like this, the science they use will become the benchmark to solve other problems,” Chalmers says. “You’ve got breeders, geneticists, pathologists, horticulturalists, and other experts involved. I’m optimistic the peach industry could have a solution in a few years.”

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