By the time Jason Saunders realized one-quarter of his crops had been infected by a vicious fungus, he said it was too late to do anything about it.

"You're not going to beat Mother Nature when it's against you, it just isn't possible," Saunders said. "You can do everything right and still not win."

A plant fungus called fusarium graminearum swept his durum wheat fields near Taber, Alta., last summer.

Saunders estimates the outbreak cost up to $100 per acre, as the fungal disease rendered his harvest less valuable at market. He had planted more than 1,000 acres of durum wheat in 2016.

But he considers himself lucky, Saunders added. He knows farmers whose crops were ravaged beyond saving.

"They dug a hole and dumped it," Saunders said.

"That is devastating — your livelihood depends on an even harvest and if it doesn't go well, you're done. Period."

'We've been able to watch it coming'

More than 25 per cent of fields surveyed by the province in 2016 tested positive for fusarium, compared to 14 per cent in 2015.

In 2007, less than one per cent of samples carried fusarium.

Researchers collected samples from 950 fields across Alberta last year. Test results showed fusarium clustered in southeast Alberta.

Fusarium spread

Fusarium — shown in red — is spreading west across Canada, creeping into Alberta from the southern Saskatchewan border. (Alberta Agriculture and Forestry)

The fungus crept into Canada from the United States nearly a century ago, with early reports dating back to 1919.

Fusarium has since spread field-by-field towards Western Canada, according to Michael Harding, an Alberta research scientist specializing in plant pathology.

The province declared fusarium a pest 18 years ago.

"It's been marching from east to west across the Prairies, so in Alberta we've been able to watch it coming," Harding said.

"There's no reason to suspect that fusarium won't end up in all of our cereal-producing areas in Alberta."

Rain, heat and wind created the perfect storm for fusarium outbreaks in 2016, Harding added.

Wind spread fusarium spores, infecting grain during the flowering stage in July and August. Warm, humid weather worsened the infections.

The fungus can trigger fusarium head blight, which affects crop quality.

Small-grain cereal such as wheat, barley, oats, rye and corn are most susceptible to infection.

This summer, Harding said extremely dry weather during the flowering months has granted farmers a reprieve from the fungus.

"In some years we're going to do well and in other years it's going to be quite challenging," Harding said.

'There's no reason to suspect that fusarium won't end up in all of our cereal producing areas in Alberta.' - Michael Harding, plant pathology research scientist

"It's not really a blessing, when your crop is dying because of the drought, to not have fusarium," he added.

Despite year-to-year fluctuations, Harding said fusarium is steadily creeping northwest into the province.

​The number of Alberta counties reporting fusarium has nearly tripled since 2001, according Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Nine counties reported the fungus in 2001, compared to 26 in 2016.

Counties around Edmonton have reported fusarium for the past two years consecutively — a first in the province, Harding said.

'A force to be reckoned with'

Infections eat into a farmer's bottom line, Harding said.

Crops contaminted with fusarium are often downgraded, decreasing their market value. Some are deemed worthless, even for animal feed.

​"It's a force to be reckoned with but at the same time we don't want to give the impression that the world is ending," Harding said. 

"It's a really tough one and it has changed the industry."

Since the early 1990s, annual losses due to fusarium have ranged from $50 million to $300 million in Canada, according to information published in the 2012 Alberta Fusarium graminearum Management Plan.

In Alberta, crop downgrading cost the province about $3 million in 2012. Two years earlier, Alberta lost about $8.7 million to downgrading.

Projections by the province in 2004, based on data collected in Manitoba, suggested the fungus could cost Alberta up to $49 million in a single year.

"This is really hard to deal with and it can cause a lot of economic loss for producers, especially seed growers," Harding said. 

"The trick with this is to strike the right balance between 'the sky is falling' and 'don't worry about it, we're going to be fine.' "

'You have to elevate your game'

Once fusarium grips a field, Harding said the fungus can be difficult to manage. Fungicides can suppress an outbreak but won't prevent damage.

"You can't just spray a fungicide and control it," Harding said. 

"It is manageable, but when fusarium germinearium shows up you have to elevate your game." 

Fusarium

Symptoms of fusarium head blight include bleaching (left) and water-soaked brown spots (right) at the base of glumes. (Ministry of Agriculture, Government of Saskatchewan)

The province published a management plan in 2002 to help Alberta farmers cope with the disease.

For instance, rotating crops to non-hosts such as caonla and pulses can slow fusarium's spread. Rotation also prevents the residue of infected plants from building up on fields and contaminating future yields.

"It is manageable, but it's difficult to manage," Harding said.

"For people that don't want to deal with difficult management they may get out of growing wheat in areas where it becomes really severe."

Policy change needed, farmers say

Fusarium graminearum was declared a pest in Alberta in 1999, a move meant to stop its spread through the province.

Under Alberta's Agricultural Pest Act, grain with detectable levels of the fungus can't be used for seed.

The policy is "one of the best ways to prevent long-distance spread of this pest," Harding said.

But Kevin Auch, chairman of the Alberta Wheat Commission, disagrees.

He called the policy outdated, given its ban on planting all seeds with detectable levels of fusarium.

"It doesn't make sense to have zero tolerance," Auch said. "Zero's a very low number.

"If we can't get seed, that really restricts our ability as farmers."

Auch, who farms near Carmangay, is lobbying the province to revise and update its policy to reflect the current state of fusarium in Alberta.

"It was inevitable that it got here at some point in the future and now it's here," he said. "Keeping seed out doesn't really help us anymore, so that's why we're asking for that change."

The change will help Alberta farmers move forward with a disease that's in the province to stay, Auch added.

"It's all part of farming," he said. "We're a resilient bunch."