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In 2015 I attended the annual meeting of the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS) in Kyrgyzstan. Many plant pathologists won’t have heard of GFRAS, yet it plays an important role in making sure the results of research get to the people who need up to date and reliable advice on crop protection. It was my first time Kyrgyzstan, a place I vaguely knew as “somewhere above Afghanistan”, and I wanted to make the most of my visit. I arranged to meet Dr Tinatin Doolotkeldieva, a plant pathologist, at the Kyrgyz Turkish Manas University (KTMU) in Bishkek, the capital city. Tinatin has worked on fireblight, a new and damaging disease in a region which is the home of apples, and Sally Miller at Ohio State University, past president of APS, who I already knew. Tinatin and I met on a rainy Saturday morning after the conference and talked plant diseases. We got on well and I suggested coming back to teach her students and explore general collaborations. I was fortunate to get a travel grant from the BSPP. Tinatin made local arrangements and I’m especially grateful for all her hard work. When I arrived early on the 10th June she was at the airport with a university car. The university allocated me a flat on the campus for my two week stay. Next day I met key staff and started to prepare for the course. There are close cultural ties between Turkey and the Kyrgyz Republic (the official name, to avoid confusion with Kurdistan). Turkey has given generous financial report to KTMU and there are regular academic exchanges. Tinatin has pioneered an undergraduate degree course for plant protection – they do exist! Second and third year students made up the bulk of people on the course, joined by others from the horticulture degree course. There were 25 participants on the course. Most understood English, though Tinatin and Saykal, who works in the diagnostic lab, made sure that I was understood We worked our way through a series of exercises on field diagnosis over two days. I added new material on apple and sunflower, both important crops locally. We got fresh samples from vegetable plots on campus and students brought samples from home. The potatoes on campus were being heavily chewed by Colorado beetles while stone fruit trees showed the ravages of bacterial canker, a big problem throughout Kyrgyzstan. On most courses I’m never sure how much people already know about pests and diseases. It’s simpler with students because they get the same amount of teaching. I wasn’t exactly sure what they already knew, so we did the ‘looks familiar’ exercise. The students looked at sets of photos appearing to show rusts, mildews, aphids and so on, and were asked to say which ones were of something else. Groups struggled with mildews and were weaker in identifying rusts that I expected. We went to two locations near Bishkek to talk to farmers. At the first site we trudged through a field of recently planted tomatoes, all looking (sigh) rather healthy. The main lesson was to organise such visits differently. I did find some interesting symptoms on sugar beet which appeared similar to Fusarium yellows. Dr Mohamed Khan from North Dakota State University responded quickly to photos I sent. Sayka was unable to isolate a Fusarium sp. and I forgot – contrary to my own teaching – to look inside the apparently healthy beet for tell-tale blackening and decay symptoms. The jury is still out on the cause.
Few of the students came from an agricultural background. Much has changed since independence 25 years ago, but agriculture is still hugely important to many people. After the course I flew to Osh and met with Mr Orunby from the local plant quarantine lab, accompanied by Tumar, my excellent translator and student at KTMU. As we descended after the short 30 minute flight, I got my first glimpses of the vast fields of the Fergana Valley, stretching far into the distance. Said to be the ‘bread basket’ of Central Asia, this fertile area has maize, sunflower, barley, rice, lucerne, vegetables and, above all else, cotton. Kyrgyzstan has only a small area in the Fergana Valley, but is crucial in supplying water from mountain rivers. It can be a tense region, as the closed border post (close to Osh) with Uzbekistan demonstrated. I learnt more about the challenges of running a diagnostic lab and watched as a Russian team arrived to plan for new buildings, part of an ‘aid’ project. So no hard feelings, or gently rekindling a past hierarchy? A bit of both, I suspect. One thing that surprised me was the lack of an up to date list of pests and diseases affecting crops in Kyrgyzstan, a key reference when trying to figure out what’s wrong with a plant and for keeping track of new and already known problems. I had asked to visit cotton fields and went on a couple of farm visits with Orunby, accompanied by local agricultural officers. Cotton (and tobacco) buyers from Turkey and China, which has a nearby border, advise farmers on varieties to plant and also offer technical advice. I had to rather hurriedly prepare for a short meeting with agricultural officers who came from as far away as Bujum to meet me. I wasn’t quite sure what they expected me to do, so we did a quick course exercise before inviting questions. At times like this I can’t quite decide whether I’m brave or foolish. The main questions were on cotton pests and diseases. Bacterial blight is a big problem (Xanthomonas malvacearum), as are aphids and the ubiquitous bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera). I struggled to answer all the questions but at least know what will be required of me next time. Overall, I had a fascinating and rewarding visit, even with energetic extensionists in Osh. I learnt a lot about what could be done to help new students and farmers. Back in Bishkek, I spent an intriguing morning with Tima in a newly planted field of rather sad looking strawberries and raspberries. He and his partner Mina had left good jobs in telecoms to explore the potential of high value horticulture. But they were struggling. The problem with strawberry could have been red core (Phytophthora fragariae) but much more likely to be poor growing conditions. I’m hoping to return again next year, to continue working with KTMU and with the phytosanitary people and extension workers in Osh. There are a lot of basic things which can be done to aid the never-ending battle against pests and diseases: training, extension material and a national list of crop pests and diseases (I’m working on this with Tinatin). I’m immensely grateful for the support of the BSPP and the assistance of my friends and colleagues in Kyrgyzstan. I look forward to strengthening ties with the UK.
Eric Boa University of Aberdeen