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Interview with an Extension Vegetable Specialist: Part 2


Nutrient and water management, pests, diseases, and weeds—these are some of the issues farmers consider when implementing production practices.

In parallel to this, a traditional Extension program typically houses a soil scientist, an entomologist, a plant pathologist, and a weed scientist. However, some states don’t have the resources to hire a specialist in each of these areas. Katie Campbell-Nelson’s background is in soil science, and she worked in plant pathology for 2 years before joining the UMASS Extension Vegetable Program. While Katie does not identify as an entomologist, she has learned a bit about integrated pest management (IPM) by working in the field with former UMASS Extension Vegetable program leader and entomologist, Ruth Hazzard.

Emphasizing the “I” in IPM

Integrated pest management is an ecological approach to pest management that takes into account a farmer’s bottom line. “But it focuses too much on the term ‘pest,’ says Katie. “Just having ‘pest’ in the name of ‘integrated pest management’ means that I’m focused on ‘pests’ rather than on cropping systems or agricultural systems,” she reasons. Perhaps it’s her strong background in sustainable agriculture, but Katie sees IPM as a valued framework to understand and teach, but not as a singular catchall approach for her everyday work with farmers.

“I think in the context of climate change… everything used to be more interdisciplinary in a way that still uses expertise. So we can’t lose the entomologists or the plant pathologists, we can’t all become generalists…. But we need to be able to integrate integrated pest management…”

To better illustrate this point, Katie highlighted the practice of reduced tillage, a strategy often used to combat extreme weather events related to climate change. Reduced tillage refers to tilling less in order to protect the soil, which in turn means less erosion when there is a lot of rain and more moisture holding capacity when there is a drought. So, in any water extreme, having reduced tillage systems in place is usually an advantage.

But here is the catch; there are trade-offs when you look at the whole system.

“One of the problems with reduced tillage systems, for vegetable producers, is that it comes with different pest problems. You leave residue on the soil surface, and you get more diseases or you have certain pests that like the residue. Do you see where I’m going with this? You need both the crop agronomist, horticulturalist, but also the entomologist and plant pathologist and the farmers to come up with strategies that will work.”

In summary, when you change one variable, everything else changes around that decision; kind of like a domino effect.

“For integrated pest management to adapt to climate change, it needs to expand its scope.”

How has climate changed the movement of pests?

It’s complicated.

For example, this past year Katie started looking closer at the European corn borer, a pest that overwinters in Massachusetts. It hasn’t been much of a pest in recent years, but the weird thing about this pest is that they have two different populations: univoltine and bivoltine.

“And what that means is that the univoltine population of corn borer emerges slowly throughout the season. The bivoltine population has two emergences; they break winter dormancy quickly in the spring, their populations build up quickly and then they go down, and then in July you see a second generation.”

The European corn borer seems to have successfully adopted an adaptive lifestyle towards surviving seasonal fluxes. Thus, growing crops with this pest in mind does not become any easier by having a longer growing season or killing spring frost. Some emerge early, some stay dormant, and some have two life cycles.

“And to make it more complicated, you don’t just find them in corn. European corn borer is also in potato, in dahlias, and in cotton. They basically bore into hollow stems, and that’s where they like to complete their life cycles. And I think that maybe in mid-summer when they’re not used to being around corn stalks that become woody and harder, that maybe they prefer something like potato or dahlia that have these softer stems that they can chew into.”

And remember, that is just one example of a pest adapting to seasonal shifts and available host crops. So, how can the farmer keep up with the pests who are rapidly adapting to climate change?

Current farmer engaged research

Like many other Extension professionals, Katie and her team have quite a few ingenious projects in the works. A few that came to light in conversation include an on-farm mustard bio-fumigation project, a recently kicked-off, farmer-led research initiative addressing nitrogen mineralization rates in soil, and a regional pest scouting network (more on this last one in the next section).

Katie’s research on natural bio-fumigants is focused on how mustard plants can be used as a cover cropping option to manage soil pathogens and plant parasitic nematodes. Already in its third year, on-farm research trials have taken place in both vegetable and strawberry productions.

“The active ingredients in a lot of fumigants are now being taken off the market, and so farmers are looking for other strategies to reduce pathogens. They are also looking for other practices that are less dependent on using pesticides.”

The hope is, Katie explains, that with mustard as a cover crop, a farmer is not only adding organic matter to their soil, but also naturally fumigating to suppress unwanted pathogens and nematodes.

Katie’s newest project began this past fall on five different farms. Each participating farm is now host to an on-farm trial using cover crops to study nitrogen mineralization rates (from nitrogen fixing cover crops to following season vegetable crops). Each trial is also unique as each farm picked their own cover crop treatments in order to answer their own questions.

“This is like the best of all worlds; having farmers engaged in research to answer their own questions. That’s my favorite part of my job; to work with farmers on this kind of stuff, and to get them doing applied research.”

Not only are these farms getting the support and opportunity to answer their own questions, they are also implementing a good climate adaptation practice. In reflection on how UMASS Extension’s research will positively impact these farmers, Katie mentioned that the establishment of using the scientific method to deal with issues is the biggest takeaway for the farmers.

“I think that [the scientific method] could be used for any of the issues we’re dealing with facing climate change. The more farmers we have that approach their practices that way, I think the better, and the more prepared they’ll be dealing with long-term issues.”

A scouting network beyond borders

Similar to people, pests do not all move in one direction or at one time. Some migrate, some blow in on storm fronts each year, and others just move from host to host. In order to combat the unpredictable movement of pests for agricultural producers, a New England Pest Scouting Network was created with funding from a partnership grant from Northeastern IPM Center (NEIPM). It now includes teams from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Eastern New York, and Rhode Island who scout and report on a regional basis. Updates from these teams are regularly included in Vegetable Notes and in other Extension newsletters.

“Leek moth and sweet midge are two pests that are prevalent in the North, in Vermont, and we don’t have them here in Massachusetts… yet. Although someone this year said, ‘oh, I have leek moth.’ Until its reported and confirmed, it’s hard to say, which is why having this network is useful.”

This highly collaborative network has been an extremely helpful resource for many farmers thus far. Katie says she is constantly receiving comments on how Pest Alerts have helped identify pest issues and predicted what is coming, while also providing insight into issues not previously considered. Thinking about the long-term implications of Pest Alerts, Katie believes that with improved data collection capabilities, the application could help inform future pest model forecasts.

Growing for opportunity

“As agriculture grows in the Northeast, as we get more water even though its going to be unpredictable and California continues to go into a drought, I think we’re probably going to become a larger produce growing part of the country. I’m already seeing more plant breeding projects in the Northeast, which means that people are thinking about breeding crops for our climate- specific to the Northeast. And up to now, almost all of our seed for vegetable production comes from Oregon and Washington. So, that’s different, you know? Things are happening.”

Things are happening, but Katie stresses the importance of human connections and relationships in order to tackle the challenges that come with a changing climate. This means working together more, talking together more.

“I don’t know if we spent enough time making sure that the knowledge that we gain from the scientific research perspective is adaptable and translatable to practice, in agricultural settings, or to land managers in general. I know we can do it. It’s just a matter of designing research projects with the end users in mind and also with the ecological realities in mind.”

Simply stated, we need more applied research for agriculture in order to meet the realities of climate change. Thanks to Extension professionals like Katie Campbell-Nelson and her colleagues, adaptation practices are already on trial, and farmers are rapidly being engaged to keep up with the changes.

Similar to Extension professionals like Katie, the USDA Northeast Climate Hub also works to help make scientific research more approachable and applicable to growers and producers, so that climate-informed management decisions can be made with greater confidence. Bridging the knowledge gap between the research field and the farm field means less trial and error, more accessible expertise, and greater overall climate resiliency for farmers.

This is the second installment of a two-part article by Karrah Kwasnik, Digital Content Manager, USDA Northeast Climate Hub, from an interview with Katie Campbell-Nelson, Vegetable Specialist, of UMass Extension in August 2016​. Looking for the first installment of our interview with Katie Campbell-Nelson of UMass Extension? Look no further-- it’s right here!