Former Soviet Union Republic looks to Texas researcher for answers

AMARILLO Dr. Charlie Rush is using knowledge gained in the sugar beet fields of the Panhandle to help the Republic of Azerbaijan, formerly a part of the Soviet Union, build economic stability.

Rush is a plant pathologist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Amarillo. While the sugar beet fields have disappeared across the Panhandle, he still helps other regions of the U.S. find solutions to sugar beet disease and pathogenic problems.

Now, he is taking his expertise overseas.

Azerbaijan recently built an oil pipeline from the capital Baku to the Turkey border and they are realizing increasing oil revenues, he said. The government is trying to use some of that money to improve the infrastructure and job market in the country outside of the capital city.

The primary source of income and jobs outside the city is through farming, Rush said. Cotton and sugar beets are both high-value crops to the region.

The first sugar beet processing factory, Azersun Sugar in Imisli, has been built and processed the first crop of a few 1,000 acres of beets this year, he said.

But there are still many issues related to harvesting and getting large amounts of beets to the factory. For instance, many beets are grown on five-acre plots watered by a series of hand-dug trenches and are hand harvested, he said.

Rush's trip to Azerbaijan was at the request of Valmont, a Nebraska company which produces Valley center-pivot irrigation systems. Valmont is establishing a pilot project on cotton and sugar beets.

"Basically, I think the Azerbaijanis just need someone with experience with sugar beets," Rush said. "They are so new at this, they really don't know what they need. Before, they had cooperative farms and someone in Moscow would write out the specs and the growers would follow them."

Now they need someone to work with them and help them begin research on their own, he said. This includes variety trials, seeding rates and spacing considerations.

Valmont helped set up the first center-pivot sugar beet pilot project near Beylagan while Rush was there. They hope this automated irrigation will help expand the acreage.

Because the seasons are slightly milder than those in the Panhandle, Rush said the Azerbaijanis may be able to plant two crops per year and keep the factory running all year long.

Rush is not the only Panhandle presence involved with this irrigation project. Jerry Clement of Dumas, a farmer and former sugar beet grower, is working with Valmont to help the company establish a presence in Azerbaijan.

Valmont has 10 irrigation systems set up for cotton and one for sugar beets. Clements helped set up the irrigation systems and will help advise the farmers on the farming practices they use.

The pivot for sugar beets is about a half mile long, Rush said. It was set up to help demonstrate how beets can be grown on a larger acreage.

The hand-dug ditch canals currently used create problems with uneven stands and weed control, he said. Those are the types of issues Rush believes he can help them with most.

He hopes that some of the country's farming leaders can be brought to the U.S. to visit the beet-growing regions and see everything from winter beets in California to harvest in Minnesota.

Sugar beet research still comprises 60 percent of Rush's research efforts. Many of the diseases he first looked at in the Panhandle are now problems in other sugar beet-growing regions. He receives funding from the Minnesota and North Dakota Research and Education Board, and the Beet Sugar Development Foundation out of Denver, Colo.

"Pathology is my expertise," Rush said. "But I have a good general understanding of the whole operation."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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