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Sustainably beating fruit orchard pests aim of new WSU entomologist

Closeup of Northfield in front of apple orchard.

WENATCHEE, Wash. – Developing sustainable strategies to defeat devastating pests that threaten apple, pear, cherry and other fruit crops is Tobin Northfield’s goal as Washington State University’s newest entomologist.

Joining the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center at Wenatchee, Northfield started Aug. 16 as an integrated pest management researcher, supporting Washington’s more than $3 billion tree fruit industry.

“I’m really excited to meet the growers of Washington,” said Northfield, a 2011 WSU alumnus with a doctorate in entomology and a master’s in statistics. “There’s no substitute for their decades of experience. While I have my own ideas, no one knows their farms like they do.”

Wealth of tools

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a holistic approach that relies on beneficial insects, predators, habitat changes and other eco-friendly techniques to manage pests.

“IPM means you have a wide range of tools, and they’re all interconnected,” said Northfield. “You’re using selective pesticides, but you’re also using cultural controls, like mating disruption, which has been successfully used against the fruit pest codling moth, and making the most of the environment itself.”

Northfield comes to WSU from James Cook University in Australia, where he supported tropical agricultural industries like cocoa and banana through ecology and IPM for five years.

Working alongside Australian farmers, Northfield found a way to use cocoa waste to encourage both pollinators and natural insect predators. Yields doubled.

He hopes to take a similar team-based approach here in Washington.

“Growers are smart and creative, or they’re not in business,” he said. “They often have great ideas, but they don’t have time to conduct research.

“That’s where I come in,” Northfield added. “I’ll get to know growers and the problems they’re facing, gain their insights, and combine that with ecological theory to create new, effective management strategies that protect crops, the ecosystem, and their pocketbooks.”

Decision Aid System

Bringing a strong mathematical modeling and statistical background, Northfield will help improve WSU’s Decision Aid System, an important tool used by growers in the U.S. and Canada.

Look for Northfield to add tools that help growers maintain habitat for beneficial insects while decreasing gateways for pests and invaders.

“Our native environment is really important for the agricultural environment,” he said.

Some native and crop plants host good bugs, while others shield bad ones. Pests like Brown Marmorated Stink Bug move through an extensive range of host plants, from fruit trees and grapes to trees and vegetables, hiding in the natural environment.

“Be aware of the vegetation surrounding your farm,” Northfield explains.

Done carefully, growers can design an entire crop system to become resistant to pests and invaders.

“When the next pest comes along, a beneficial insect will step up and handle it. They’re your first line of defense, and they will save you money in chemicals, fuel and environmental impact.”

Integrated pest management is tricky, Northfield says, because it’s so complex. But that’s what he loves about it.

“I get really excited when things get complicated,” says Northfield. “I want to unravel all of that complexity and put it to use to solve problems. Intellectually, it’s exciting!”



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