Friday, June 11, 2010

A Tale of Three Nurseries

The U.S. program to address sudden oak death (Phytophthora ramorum) is stuck in a rut. This week Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) found an infection at a large Oregon nursery that ships plants all over the country. This is not the first time this has happened, and unless something changes, it won’t be the last. Here is a short story to illustrate the problem.

Once upon a time there were three nurseries. As long as people could remember, these nurseries had been growing and selling plants to satisfied customers. The nurseries were called: Clean and Green, Pretty Good Plants, and Cuttin Corners. 

 Then one day, something new and sinister appeared—a plant disease called Sudden Oak Death, or Phytophthora ramorum. No one knew where disease came from, but it killed a lot of oak trees in places where it became established. 

The disease spread into the nursery industry. Regulatory officials became alarmed. Everybody wanted to protect oak trees from the sinister disease. The elders remembered previous epidemics that wiped out elm trees and chestnut trees. Concern spread like a shadow over the whole land. 

What could they do? At first many States enacted quarantines, each one different from the others. An ugly patchwork of regulations emerged. No one was happy. Federal authorities saw the problem and stepped in to keep things from getting worse. Federal money flowed in to pay for inspectors to inspect and test the plants at Clean and Green, Pretty Good Plants, Cuttin Corners, and all the other nurseries in the land.
The inspectors looked and looked, and every now and then they found the disease hiding among the plants at a nursery. It was very hard to find because, except on oak trees, its symptoms looked like common leaf spots. Every time the disease was found, bad things happened and people got mad. Thousands of dollars worth of plants were destroyed, and all the regulatory officials were notified. Time and again, inspectors fanned out across the land in search of the sinister disease because they didn’t want their oak trees to die. In spite of everyone’s best efforts, this continued to happen, and the reputation of the nursery industry began to suffer.

As time went by, the federal government and regulatory officials across the land grew disillusioned. Nothing changed.

One person knew what needed to be done. Ima Sampler, the inspector for Clean and Green, Pretty Good Plants, and Cuttin Corners, had lots of experience with nurseries and plant diseases. She had noticed a pattern.

After years of inspecting nurseries and testing plants for Sudden Oak Death, she could predict with a high rate of accuracy which nurseries were likely to be infected. Clean and Green rarely had any disease problems. In fact, Ima had trouble finding symptomatic plants to sample there. Clean and Green was a very good nursery with excellent management practices. Diseases weren’t an issue at Clean and Green. 

Pretty Good Plants was also a good nursery. They knew about Sudden Oak Death, and they had made some changes in their management practices. Unfortunately the owner, Joe Average, couldn’t afford all the best management practices that he’d learned about in a free online course at Ima crossed her fingers when she inspected Pretty Good Plants; she’d seen similar nurseries develop disease problems, including sudden oak death.

Cuttin Corners was Ima’s nightmare. The owner, Standin Still, had been in business for a long time. Management practices had barely changed at all since the nursery started. Cuttin Corners was still buying stock from whoever offered the cheapest price, plants were often standing in puddles of water, and at Cuttin Corners, they reused pots without sterilizing them. Ima crossed her fingers, held her breath, and said a little prayer every time she inspected Cuttin Corners. It was only a matter of time before P. ramorum showed up there, and it was going to spread rapidly when it did. 

Ima had a dream.

Ima’s dream was that all nurseries that shipped plants out-of-state operated like Clean and Green. She realized that it was going to cost money for Pretty Good Plants to get there, but it was certainly possible. The money that Pretty Good Plants lost in dealing with the P. ramorum infection at their nursery would have paid for a steam pot sterilizer.

It also dawned on Ima that unless all the shipping nurseries in the land adopted best management practices (BMPs), the problem of diseases being vectored by nursery stock would never go away.
 Ima realized that Cuttin Corners was never likely to adopt the necessary BMPs, at least while Standin Still was in charge. In Ima’s opinion, Cuttin Corners shouldn’t be shipping plants to other states anyway.
 Ima’s dream seemed out of reach. A new system of nursery certification was needed, one that required a different, higher standard of plant health for nurseries shipping interstate.

Nursery industry, government leaders, and state regulatory officials still didn’t want the oak trees to die, but many of them worried about what would happen when the federal money stopped paying for inspections and testing. Unfortunately, there was no additional money to pay for a conversion to another system. So nothing changed.
This story is still being written. Here is the ending I’d like to see.
Eventually it dawned on several key people that the status quo was not sustainable. It was time to take the lessons learned by Ima Sampler, Guy Visionary, and Joe Average, develop a plan, and get started moving toward a sustainable system.
Two big hurdles stood in their way right from the beginning. The first was settling on national standard BMPs. Luckily, several researchers around the country had been studying the effectiveness of BMPs. Taking the best science available, a new national certification standard for shipping nurseries was hammered out. Initially, not everyone liked it, or thought it was necessary, but the industry leaders, scientists, and government officials worked together to educate the doubters. The second hurdle was greater.
Many nurseries were not in a position financially to make the changes necessary to reach the national standard. Again working together, the nursery industry, federal government, and State Regulatory officials devised a plan to help. They took the money that was being spent on inspecting and testing Clean and Green, and other nurseries already meeting the new national standard, and instead used it to provide help for the nurseries like Pretty Good Plants that needed upgrades. As more and more nurseries reached the new shipping standard, fewer and fewer needed intensive inspections and testing.

The government, with the support of the nursery industry, set a deadline of 5 years to get the new national nursery certification system in place. There was considerable angst at the beginning, but by working together, the industry and the government sold the idea to Guy Visionary, Joe Average and thousands of other nursery owners all over the land. State regulatory officials liked the provision that inspections and SOD testing would continue at nurseries not meeting the national standard. By enacting a uniform standard across the board, nobody was put at a competitive disadvantage. Customers and retail nurseries didn’t really notice the difference except plant quality seemed to be a lot more consistent.
After 5 years, the new national nursery certification system was in place. It was voluntary, except for nurseries shipping interstate. Shipping permits were only available for nurseries meeting the new national standard. Everyone agreed that risk of moving dangerous plant diseases on nursery stock was greatly reduced. The SOD inspection and testing program morphed into a nursery standards program that was less costly and more effective.

All the people were glad that the trees were still there.
The End

Dan Hilburn


  1. Sudden Oak Death is a "forest Health Problem" not a "nursery health problem". We need to make the forest healthy again.

  2. I got infected Rhodies from an extremely clean and green nursery. One that an ODA official said "It would be very unlikely for ***** to ship you infected plants. Try again.