For Cindy Ocamb, an associate professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology and an OSU Extension Service specialist, perseverance comes naturally.

Mixing microorganisms to fight disease

Ocamb’s research began in the late 1980s, studying the effects of soilborne diseases on white pine trees in the Midwest. After determining the trees needed assistance from a different ecosystem to grow and thrive, she began searching for microorganisms that could help healthy plants resist disease. Starting with 700 to 900 microorganisms, Ocamb worked to find the perfect mixture by testing them in several different combinations.

Soon after, Ocamb came to Oregon State, where her research focused on Fusarium, a similar soil-borne disease that can devastate crops like sweet corn. Ocamb discovered one of those experimental microorganism mixtures decreased the effects of pathogenic diseases in both white pine and corn.

Bouquet ears (multiple ears per node) were extremely common with MicroAF treatment on the inbred of sweet corn Jubilee. The primary ear presented as healthy and dominate in size in nearly all cases of bouquet ears in 2012 Oregon State MicroAF trials.

A mixture that also boosts yields

Ocamb further refined her idea with the help of TerraMax — a Bloomington, Minnesota, company focused on microbial agriculture and turf treatments. And as a result, Ocamb’s discovery turned into a product: MicroAF™. This eight-microorganism mixture can be applied to the seed, the plant itself or into the soil.

MicroAF can increase crop yields in plants like sweet corn and wheat and control leaf spot diseases in Brassica crops such as canola, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, rutabagas and turnips. When MicroAF is applied to corn and wheat, these plants grow stronger, larger and produce higher yields. For example, in a 2013 trial, corn plants treated with MicroAF averaged 383 grams of husked ear weight, compared to 188 grams average for untreated plants.

MicroAF also has the potential to help combat the impacts of climate change. Heat puts plants under more stress, and it’s difficult for them to get enough water — even with irrigation. Because stressed plants are more prone to soilborne diseases, MicroAF can help them build resilience by maintaining their health at hotter temperatures.

Future applications

TerraMax has obtained an exclusive license through Oregon State to commercialize MicroAF. Ocamb and TerraMax are planning to submit the mixture to the Environmental Protection Agency for an approved product label that references disease management and prevention. Once that label is received, MicroAF can be used to treat pathogenic diseases like Fusarium root rot and crown rots and leaf spot diseases such as light leaf spot and black leg in Brassica crops. Until the approved label is received, however, MicroAF will be used primarily as a yield enhancer.

“I’m hoping other people will embrace this idea of making little ecosystems that will really add resistance to our agricultural production,” Ocamb says. “It’s an unexplored area that we haven’t really addressed.”

Thanks to Ocamb’s perseverance, farm crops will get a little help to thrive out there.