As a first line of
defense against an invading horde, a university research scientist can be a
farmer’s best friend–if he or she has one around. If not, then a lot is left to chance.
One could say on that
front Imperial County has been flirting with disaster for several years. The
longer the area goes without a Poindexter of pest science, the closer it gets
to potential catastrophe.
“We are in a strategic place on the Mexico and Arizona border. If there is no appropriate research at the point of entry, (pests) would get the chance to migrate into agriculture sites in other parts of California,” said Olie Bachie, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension-Imperial County located at the Desert Research and Extension Center near Holtville.
“Pest management is the
most significant discipline missing from Imperial County agriculture,”
explained Bachie, who is also the local agronomy (soil management and crop
In the absence of a pest
scientist, the Ph.D. dabbles in that, too, despite it not being his area of
advanced study because, well, someone has to do it.
more than $4.5 billion per year to Imperial County’s economy, and employs
nearly 25,000 through farming and its ancillary industries, according to local
When a crop-damaging pest
appears, the stakes are high. That happened in fall 1990 when the sweet potato whitefly
devastated that season’s melon, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower crops and the
damage persisted for several years.
Estimates put damage at
more than $100 million for just the fall and winter 1991-1992 crops and there
was a surge in unemployment.
“The whitefly is a good
example of why we need pest management. … It just came suddenly and caught
everybody off guard,” said county Supervisor Ray Castillo. “Whole fields (of
cantaloupes) had to be plowed under. I can recall driving through the Valley,
and there were swarms and swarms everywhere. Very destructive,”
He added, “To avoid a
catastrophe of that type to other products, we need to have someone with that
background and knowledge.”
Agreeing the county needs
a formal pest advisor, Castillo and his fellow supervisors voted unanimously
voted Nov. 5 to award $385,000 over the next five years to the Cooperative
Extension. It will half-fund an integrated pest management adviser.
The position will be based
out of the Holtville research center, which is in Castillo’s district. The
funds will come from the county Agricultural Benefit Program whose source is a
county-levied fee mostly on solar projects to mitigate losses from converting
farm ground to solar.
Although Bachie said the
University of California Board of Regents could not afford to fund the position
alone, the Regents agreed to match the county dollar for dollar if the local
Cooperative Extension was awarded the grant.
“I think it’s a good use
of the money, and we were fortunate to have the money around,” Castillo said.
Retirement Left Void
Eric Natwick, a former
local Cooperative Extension entomology (insect) adviser who retired in 2017
after 36 years, was recognized at the local, state and national levels for his
work in combatting the whitefly.
Bachie said since
Natwick’s retirement, there has not been another local entomology
adviser/researcher, and only one other in Southern California, who is assigned
to the Blythe area. Before he arrived seven years ago, Bachie said there were
up to 11 farm advisers working in the county.
Research in entomology
and plant pathology (disease) have been identified by the state Cooperative
Extension as two of the top-20 most-needed disciplines in California
agriculture. However, funding has been an issue for the Cooperative Extension
for some years
The county needs not just
an entomology adviser, but to find someone trained in integrated pest
management. That discipline includes insect pests, plant pathology and weed
management. At one time, Imperial Valley had a person in place for each.
“These are the three
major issues that affect the Imperial Valley,” he said. “Farms that we have in
Imperial County are very diverse and complex. There are a hundred type of crop
commodities, which have a diverse number of pests, which can be weeds,
pathogens or insect pests.”
Bachie said the ideal
candidate might difficult to find. He said he would begin to put the word out
while attending a crop-science conference Nov. 10-13 in San Antonio.
Bachie can’t recruit for
the position yet, but he said during a Nov. 8 interview that he can network and
persuade others to apply for the position when it comes open. Bachie said a job
description is still being developed, and he hopes to have someone in place in
Pest control will be
important as industrial hemp activity increases in Imperial County. It has been
targeted as the area’s next big cash crop.
“I feel UCCE is going to
be a major player in doing research in industrial hemp,” county Agricultural
Commissioner Carlos Ortiz told the county board Nov. 5.