Pittsylvania County young farmer recognized for winter wheat disease research

BLACKSBURG — Grain farmers work hard to combat crop diseases, spending valuable time, money and other resources in those efforts.

One Pittsylvania County young farmer’s innovative project has garnered Virginia wheat growers’ attention.

Megan Pollok, a junior in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is researching disease resistance in winter wheat.

Fusarium head blight, a fungal disease, impacts a variety of plants. If left untreated, the disease affects the head of the plant with what is called “head scab,” rendering seeds unusable as it spreads throughout the field and infects the entire crop.

Bacterial endophytes are organisms such as bacteria or fungi naturally occurring within a plant.

“My research centers on establishing relationships between bacterial endophytes and resistant wheat varieties in order to minimize fusarium blight impacts,” Pollok said.

A major outbreak could reduce the crop to being used as animal feed.

“Everyone’s goal is growing milling-quality wheat and not feed wheat — the price is so dramatically different,” said Robert Harper, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation grain marketing specialist. “This research is very important, very applicable. It will impact every wheat grower in Virginia as they breed disease resistance into varieties, so we can maintain these phenomenal no-till systems that protect soil health, prevent erosion and save farmers money on diesel fuel and time.”

Continual plant treatment with crop protectants also has environmental impacts.

“These kinds of biological controls can take away the need for chemical inputs,” Harper said.

Pollok was the 2020 Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers Outstanding Young Agriculturalist. The award honors high school juniors and seniors for academic, community and agribusiness achievement. She is involved with operations at Hill View Farms Inc., where her family produces beef cattle and certified seed.

“It’s inspiring to work with such a bright and talented young mind,” said Nicholas Santantonio, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “Megan is developing and testing new innovative solutions to problems that we’ve been working on for a long time. We need innovators like Megan to develop the solutions we would never think to try.”