Aschochyta blight can cause complete crop loss in a field, even on fields that seemingly had no prior history of the disease.

Improving that situation is one of many missions key to agricultural vitality in the MonDak, and is one of many research challenges the Eastern Agricultural Research Center was working on in 2020.

All of the center’s research, in addition to the ordinary difficulties, also faced a global pandemic that mandated changes at all levels of operation for businesses and nonprofits like the center.

Chengci Chen as director of the center, took immediate steps to help curtail transmission of COVID-19. Among them, outside visits were restricted to appointments only, and people were asked to maintain 6 feet of distance and wear masks while inside the building. Hand sanitizer and masks were also provided in the entrance way.

Group staff meetings in person were cancelled, to avoid having a mass transmission event. For research off station, multiple vehicles were used instead of one, to get everyone to the site safely without it becoming another group transmission event.

The measures were successful, Chen said.

“We had one employee test positive for COVID and quarantine for 14 days, but it did not spread to other employees. The steps we are taking actually got control quite well.”

Despite all the challenges the pandemic presented, Chen said all of the center’s many and various research projects were completed for the year, and in the usual quality he expects of the center’s researchers.

For chickpeas, the year’s research included an intercropping study that’s looking at whether flax can slow down the spread of Aschochyta blight in the field. That approach has seen some success in Canadian fields, and researchers at both EARC and WREC have been conducting studies to see if it’s a potential benefit here.

“That is work that could really benefit organic growers,” Chen said. “Organic growers cannot use fungicide to control the disease, so if you can use that intercropping as a cultural practice to reduce or control disease, it could be a real benefit for the organic growers.”

Dr. Frankie Crutcher, meanwhile, is working with breeders to help develop resistant varieties of chickpeas, to help toughen this crop for the MonDak.

She’s also working on things like fusarium resistance for wheat varieties, and she has studies that delve into sugar beet diseases like Rhizoctonia, as well as taking a closer look at root rots in pulse crops.

Several large grants were awarded for both the agronomy side and plant pathology side of the research programs at EARC, variety trials were completed for sugar beets, pulses, and cereal crops, and a seeding date study for hemp was completed.

“We found out early seeding is really critical for Montana with a short growing season,” Chen said. “Not super early, but May planting dates are generally doing better.”

Other hemp research also includes trials to select varieties for protein and oil, fiber and protein, and CBD oil production.

“We have also continued to do mung bean and adzuki bean research,” Chen said. “We have selected some varieties that can grow in this area and we will continue to work on weed control and harvesting techniques.”

These are high-value specialty crops that have potential in niche markets for Asian communities in the United States.

“I’m so happy and proud of my employees at EARC for rising above expectations and for all the achievements they accomplished in 2020,” Chen said. “I also want to thank the community and the growers and our state and federal representatives for their support of ag research.”

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