Andrea Parish’s dogs are saving potato farmers throughout the country big money by quickly sniffing out a couple of significant crop diseases.
Her canine’s specialize in detecting potato virus Y and bacterial ring rot — both of which can hammer a seed potato grower’s bottom line. Her lovable Labradors can positively identify infected spuds just 48 hours after inoculation.
Parish, owner and founder of Nose Knows Scouting, has been working with her dogs in potato storages and fields from Washington to Maine since launching her business in 2019. She’s been hired to work with a couple of state seed potato certification programs in the near future. Her client list also includes several seed potato farmers in East Idaho.
Idaho Crop Improvement Program invited Parish to present Tuesday afternoon at their annual Idaho Seed Potato Growers Seminar at the Red Lion Hotel in Pocatello.
Parish, who recently sold her home in Wyoming and now splits time between living in Tucson, Arizona, and Sanford, Maine, said some farmers have been skeptical after hearing her pitch. However, her dogs always win them over as soon as the farmers get to see a demonstration.
“The reason I’m in this is to give farmers another tool to be successful,” Parish said. “We’re not looking to be the top dog and replace (other scouting technologies).”
Parish got her start in handling dogs when she became a certified tactical trailer, planning to use her Hanover hound, named Alva, to help the Albany County Search and Rescue, based in Laramie Wyoming. Alva, however, suffered a knee injury and was no longer eligible for the work. Parish retrained Alva to track wounded deer and elk to help hunters follow injured game and locate kills. Though she still uses Alva for tracking game, Parish noted that hunting season isn’t 12 months long, and she wanted something else for her dogs to do.
She thought of crops because her husband works as a potato consultant.
“I asked him, ‘Who is using dogs on the farm to detect disease?’ and his answer was, ‘No one,’” Parish recalled. “... For me, coming from the dog world, I couldn’t believe farmers weren’t using this technology. Dogs are proven.”
Parish explained a dog’s sensitive nose has varied and important uses. Dogs are used at mail sorting centers to detect bombs. Dogs have been proven to detect lung cancer three to six months faster than most oncologists. She even knows of trainers who are using dogs for rapid and highly accurate COVID-19 detection.
She’s trained two dogs — a black Labrador retriever named Zora and a yellow Lab named Dudley — in PVY detection. PVY, spread by aphids, hurts yields and tuber quality and expands in fields with each subsequent generation of seed planting. Raya, a Vizsla-Lab mix, is trained in bacterial ring rot detection. Ring rot is highly contagious and infects tubers through wounds. It can overwinter in infected volunteer potatoes or survive for several years as dried slime on equipment and surfaces.
Another Lab named Maya has received general training and will be trained for a specific disease based on demand.
She’s partnered with Steve Coburn, a sergeant with the police department in Loveland, Colorado, who retired from the military and has the state’s top-performing bomb dog.
“I said, ‘Let’s train for PVY.’ He said, ‘If it has an odor, we’ll be able to do it,’” Parish said.
Coburn helped Parish develop a proprietary training method for her dogs to detect potato diseases. Dogs are typically rewarded for their successes with a tennis ball.
“If you bring the dog in we sweep like a bomb dog does,” Parish said, explaining her ring rot dog can check an entire storage, as well as cutters, trucks and clothing before new seed is brought in. “They’re not just getting the 1 percent you’re swabbing. They’re getting a bigger sample area.”
Most of her demand has been for PVY. Her dogs will run through the ventilation tubes, called the plenum, beneath seed potatoes in storage and sniff through the holes above for infected tubers. Growers typically take samples from areas of the pile where the dogs find infection to be further scrutinized. Other growers hire Parish to scout fields with volunteer potatoes just after they emerge, seeking to get rid of any infected plants that could carry PVY into a new crop.
“We can run 40 acres of crops in 20 minutes,” Parish said, explaining her dogs can key in on an infected 1-inch plant from 80 feet away under ideal conditions.
Parish is considering adding powdery scab, potato wart and harmful nematodes to her dogs’ list of targeted pests and pathogens. She hopes to also train additional dogs and handlers to launch new Nose Knows Scouting teams throughout the country.
University of Idaho Extension plant virologist Alexander Karasev has supplied Parish with samples of both clean and PVY-infected plant material for use in training her dogs.
Parish has started a nonprofit foundation to raise funds in support of scientific research to prove her concept. University of Idaho and North Dakota State University are also publishing Parish’s training logs to provide data to the industry.