Toxin detected in wheat crop


A toxin spawned by wet, humid conditions has reappeared in mid-Atlantic wheat this summer.

Fortunately for Lancaster County growers and millers, the local impact of vomitoxin has been spotty.

And, said veteran Mount Joy farmer Jim Musser, the good news for consumers is that the outbreak is unlikely to boost the cost of food.

"They had a good crop in the Midwest," Musser explained, "and that's what determines food prices."

Even low levels of the aptly, if repulsively named, vomitoxin in feed can make swine throw up.

Humans who eat vomitoxin-contaminated food could potentially get sick to their stomachs.

By federal law, finished wheat products for human consumption may not contain more than one part per million vomitoxin.

Musser said wheat rejected by a flour mill for having too much vomitoxin usually can be sold to an animal feed mill –– for less money.

Wheat is bringing $6.25 a bushel, Musser said Wednesday. Wheat containing 3 ppm reaps a dime less a bushel; wheat with 4 ppm is docked 25 cents a bushel.

Musser said he was able to market all of the soft red wheat he grew on his 120-acre wheat plot, though a quarter of the grain registered more than 2 ppm, and some measured 3 or 4.

The annual harvest here ended a few weeks ago.

Dry conditions allowed farmers to sidestep the decade-long vomitoxin plague last year.

In soggy 2011, Musser said, 75 percent of his crop came in over 2 ppm.

Applying fungicide this spring helped, he added. "Then there's some guys who didn't spray and didn't get it."

A fungal condition, called fusarium head blight, or head scab, sets the stage for vomitoxin, said Jeff Graybill, Penn State Extension agronomy educator in Lancaster.

But vomitoxin may or may not develop from head scab, said Dwane Miller, an agricultural educator with the extension service in Schuylkill and Carbon counties.

Because fungal spores survive on crop residue, Miller said, the rise of no-till farming has exacerbated disease issues.

While crop rotation, planting resistant varieties and spraying all help, he added, "We tell folks don't expect the fungicide to do the job 100 percent."

Vomitoxin also commonly occurs in barley, oats and rye.

Blighted wheat kernels appear shriveled and bleached or pinkish.

The risk of head scab and pre-harvest sprouting goes up when flowering wheat gets soaked.

High humidity levels also can incubate disease, Miller said.

The area has seen heavy doses of rain and high humidity.

Still, Miller said, "We thought that things would be a little bit better based on the weather pattern. But you don't know until you get to the mill."

Mills must test for vomitoxin.

Doug Snavely, a partner in Snavely's Mill Inc. in Lititz, said he's seen his fill of it in the wheat his company purchases through brokers.

"Delaware's a disaster," said Snavely, who mills flour for pretzels and candy bars. "Eastern Maryland's a mess." In Lancaster County, "it's hit or miss.

"We've seen it up to 7 (ppm), and we can't really test higher than 7."

According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, the vomitoxin threshold in grain fed to animals should be 5 ppm for swine and 10 ppm for cattle.

"Around here," Graybill said, "a lot of our wheat does go for animal feed. ... I don't know any farmer who wasn't able to market his grain."

The wheat-growing cycle begins anew in a few months, said Musser, a farmer for 45 of his 62 years.

"We'll plant next year's wheat in October," shooting as always for that perfect crop. "We'll get it right one of these years."