The rainy El Ni¤o weather may be a blessing in disguise for Georgia peanut farmers, said a University of Georgia expert.
"The rain that started in October has many farmers behind in preparing their soil," said John Beasley, an extension peanut agronomist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Beasley is encouraging farmers to get their fields prepared and then start monitoring soil conditions.
"Some farmers are chomping at the bit to get started planting," he said. "But the closer to the first of May they plant, the more they reduce their risk of a heavy infection of tomato spotted wilt virus."
TSWV caused 10 percent to 12 percent losses in Georgia's 1997 peanut crop, said Albert Culbreath, a UGA plant pathology researcher. The virus cost farmers more than $40 million.
Culbreath, Beasley, Steve Brown and other UGA scientists help farmers fight the virus and the insects that carry it.
Thrips carry TSWV into fields of peanuts, peppers, tomatoes and tobacco as the insects fly in to feast on succulent young plants.
Normal south Georgia winter temperatures don't get low enough to kill thrips, so this year's warmer than usual winter weather didn't have much negative effect.
"Early spring weather has more effect on thrips than winter weather," said Brown. "So far, it's been pretty warm and the insects are emerging when we expected and feeding on winter weeds and volunteer peanuts."
Brown said thrips populations usually peak in mid-April, and he expects them to peak about then this year, too.
If farmers plant peanuts early, the young plants can emerge just as the insect populations peak. Farmers could find their crop infected with the virus early in the season. It's this early season infection that results in more extensive damage.
"That's why it's important to wait until the first of May to plant," Beasley said. "Even if farmers plant resistant varieties, the plants are only resistant - not immune - to the virus."
Beasley said Georgia farmers are learning how to reduce their risk of TSWV. "Our farmers are taking UGA research seriously," he said. "They're planting resistant peanut varieties, waiting until after mid-April to plant and getting a good stand in the field."
All those things can't prevent the virus from infecting plants. "But we have shown that these practices can reduce dollar losses to the disease," he said.
Georgia farmers are learning so well, Beasley said, it may make his own job harder.
"In Georgia, we expect to see about 80 percent of our acreage planted to Georgia Green, one of the most resistant varieties to TSWV," he said.
"That, combined with optimal planting dates and good stands, will make it harder to track the presence of the virus," he said. "The symptoms won't be as evident."