Making better spraying decisions with low-cost, early fungal disease detection

Spornado is being tested across Canada, especially in higher value vegetable crops

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It was a call from a client looking for a low-tech method for early detection of a fungal disease in potatoes that charted a new course for Toronto microbiology lab Sporometrics.

The resulting innovation, Spornado Sampler, has been called the first reliable, early alert system for fungal crop diseases that’s available to farmers at an accessible cost.

It’s a passive air sampler, containing a cartridge, that can be placed in fields or vineyards to capture fungal spores from the air, letting growers be proactive about how and when to spray to keep disease at bay.

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Why it matters: Spraying only when there is prediction of risk means less fungicide use, reducing costs for growers while supporting sustainability goals.

“Spornado is a predictor; it adds an element for prediction in combination with weather forecasts and grower knowledge and experience,” says President Kristine White, a co-founder along with Mike Saleh and University of Toronto microbiology professor James Scott. “It used to be only researchers that collected spore data. This is the first technology that makes it available to growers.”

“If you rely on weather modelling or just a few samplers across the region, the information is more general. But if the sampler is in your field, you have very localized data so you can be even more confident to make your spray decision for that field,” she adds.

Samples from Spornado are lab-tested to identify if a pathogen is present and users can receive results via text message, email or an online portal within 24 hours.

Spornado can be used to look for a range of fungal pathogens that cause late and early blight in potato, sclerotinia in canola, fusarium in cereal crops, downy and powdery mildew in grapes, and late blight in tomato and sugar beet.

The wind-powered unit is priced at around $500 with White estimating the annual cost for 10 to 12 weeks of sampling in potatoes at around $1,200.

Growers in Ontario and Eastern Canada can purchase the unit from Sporometrics and in the Prairies, it’s available from 20/20 Seed Labs, which officially launched the service to its clients last year.

According to seed analyst Shauna Sereda, 20/20 Seed Labs has been running trials with Spornado since 2018, testing for sclerotinia in canola and fusarium in cereals. They’ve since expanded into potatoes and are developing new tests for other airborne crop diseases. In 2019, they had 150 units across the Prairies and ran over 400 tests.

“There has been very positive feedback from our customers as they see this as another tool to assist them to make more informative decisions, and yes, it works,” she says. “The greatest benefit is helping to make decisions about spray timing by providing information about if and when a disease is present in a field.”

In Ontario, trials with potato growers began several years ago, and several projects are now underway on various other crops across the province.

University of Guelph assistant professor Cheryl Trueman is one year into a three-year project in Kent County with a Spornado spore trapping network for late blight in processing tomatoes.

“The concept has lots of potential to reduce unnecessary fungicide use. The traps are easy to operate and require no power source,” she says.

Dennis Van Dyk, vegetable specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), had two Spornado systems set up for early and late potato blight in the Grand Bend area in 2019, and will be adding downy and powdery mildew in onions this year. He’s hoping to also start some trials on carrots and onion in the Holland Marsh.

“It’s definitely an early warning sign and if we can tie the amount of spores in the air to better timing of fungicide spray, that’s more bang for the buck,” he says, adding that new tests will allow for detection of multiple diseases from the same sample.

Work is also underway in several Niagara area vineyards on downy mildew and powdery mildew in grapes, and the University of Idaho is doing work in both potatoes and sugar beet, according to White.

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