Grapes, onions, garlic: $5.6M research projects aim to protect specialty crops

Hanu Pappu stands in front of glass shelf display.

Two national research teams led by scientists at Washington State University will protect valuable U.S. grape, onion and garlic crops from devastating and fast-adapting pests and diseases, thanks to more than $5.6 million in Specialty Crop Research Initiative grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Researching sustainable defenses, Hanu Pappu, the Chuey Endowed Chair and Samuel H. Smith Distinguished Professor in the WSU Department of Plant Pathology, received $3.29 million to study and stop serious pests and diseases harming onions and garlic.

Developing high-tech solutions, Michelle Moyer, associate professor with the WSU Viticulture and Enology program, received an initial $2.4 million to launch a national effort to understand and combat fungicide resistance threatening the $5 billion wine, table grape and raisin crop.

Protecting onions, garlic from pests, viruses

Onion and garlic are among the most valuable vegetable crops in the world, with an annual value of more than $1.5 billion. Pappu leads a multistate effort to develop techniques that could save the industry millions in losses.

SCRI funding supports four years of research, and three separate research components, spearheaded by WSU, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, New Mexico State University, Oregon State University, Cornell University, College of Idaho and University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The multidisciplinary research and Extension team includes plant pathologists, entomologists, breeders and an economist, sociologist and food scientist. At WSU, Pappu is joined by extension entomologist Tim Waters.

Onions growing in field.
Infected by Iris yellow spot virus, onion plants collapse and yields fall. Grant-funded research at WSU helps find sustainable ways to protect allium crops from pests and diseases.

Together, the team will develop economical, environmentally sound and socially acceptable integrated pest management tactics to control pests and the diseases they carry, safeguarding yield and health.

Scientists will work to reduce pesticide use to control thrips, a tiny insect pest of alliums, while developing crop varieties that are resistant to the pest and the destructive virus they carry, Iris yellow spot virus (IYSV).

“IYSV has been a major constraint to seed and bulb onion production in the Northwest,” said Pappu. For most of his career, Pappu has studied IYSV and related viruses, making significant progress in understanding its disease cycle.

“We are going to build on what we know about these pests and diseases to devise eco-friendly management tactics,” he said.

His project uses innovative approaches to reduce the problem of white rot, a disease of alliums that can survive in soil for up to 20 years, and has wiped out thousands of acres of onion and garlic fields in recent years.

“Federal support lets us take our research efforts to the next level,” said Pappu. “This work was developed in close consultation with onion and garlic stakeholders, and their support is critical for our success.”

Learn more about the project at the USDA website.

Stopping resistant fungi

For decades, grape growers have relied on inexpensive, effective fungicides to prevent millions of dollars in crop losses from powdery mildew.

But the fast-adapting fungus is developing resistance to common control chemicals, leaving farmers and their crops vulnerable.

mug shot of researcher

“Just like in human health, pathogens adapt and become resistant to the chemicals we use to control them,” said Moyer. “When that happens, the treatments we’ve relied on for generations to prevent infection no longer work.”

This fall, Moyer launches a four-year, $4.75 million, multi-institution effort to reduce the impact of resistance, titled “Fungicide Resistance Assessment, Mitigation and Extension Network for Wine, Table and Raisin Grapes” (FRAME).

In partnership with Michigan State University, USDA-ARS, the Ohio State University, University of Utah, University of California-Davis, University of Georgia, and University of California Cooperative Extension, the FRAME team will improve how we detect and predict resistance, and develop strategies that help growers, extension educators and manufacturers reduce its economic impact.

“With FRAME, we have a chance to tackle resistance before it becomes a larger problem,” Moyer said.

Molecular biologists on the team will help create better, faster tests for resistance. Led by WSU researchers, Extension specialists will develop service centers in grape regions around the U.S., helping to put new resistance tests into practice. Engineers will model resistance hotspots and the rate of fungus spread, using local weather and topography. Viticulturists and field pathologists will evaluate management strategies in the vineyard.

Grapes with mildew.
Powdery mildew, a fungal disease that harms grapes, is becoming resistant to effective fungicides. WSU researchers lead a four-year project to stop resistance.

WSU economist Ana Espinola-Arredondo will research how farmers, chemical manufacturers and distributors can be encouraged to engage in spray practices that prevent resistance.

Once the process is perfected, the FRAME concept could be expanded to many specialty crops, from apples and cherries to hops and potatoes.

“The end result means more effective use of the tools we have for disease management, sustainable grape production, and ultimately, affordable wine, table, and raisin grapes for consumers,” Moyer said.

Learn more about the project at the USDA website.


  • Hanu Pappu, Chuey Endowed Chair, Samuel H. Smith Distinguished Professor, Department of Plant Pathology, 509-335-3752,
  • Michelle Moyer, associate professor and extension viticulturist, Department of Horticulture, 509-786-9234,

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