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Humor advances success of UA vegetable IPM program

Juan and Marco Pentildea  son and father  draw entertaining cartoons for the Vegetable IPM Updates enewsletter at the Yuma Agricultural Center The idea is to add a little humor to the business of winter vegetable farming
<p><strong>Juan and Marco Pe&ntilde;a - son and father - draw entertaining cartoons for the Vegetable IPM Updates e-newsletter at the Yuma Agricultural Center. The idea is to add a little humor to the business of winter vegetable farming.</strong></p>
A cartoon was added several years ago to the University of Arizona&#39;s Vegetable IPM Updates e-newsletter&nbsp;at Yuma, thanks to the art work of agronomist Marco Pe&ntilde;a. He says images are an excellent and powerful way to show agriculture to others. With cartoons, Pe&ntilde;a tries to put smiles on people&rsquo;s faces to reduce the stresses associated with different pests, weeds, and diseases in winter&nbsp;vegetables.

A ‘ding’ sound often notifies a computer, tablet, or smartphone user of a new message in their e-mail inbox. If the incoming document is the University of Arizona’s (UA) Vegetable IPM Updates e-newsletter, time spent reading the pest, disease, and weed messages can be followed by chuckles and laughs.

What’s so funny about vegetable pests, diseases, and weeds? Nothing really but it’s the funny creative agricultural cartoon included with the newsletter that has people churning out smiles and giggles.

Launched about seven years ago, the Vegetable IPM newsletter penned by UA vegetable scientists John Palumbo covering insect pests, Mike Matheron on diseases, and Barry Tickes on weeds – all based at the UA’s Yuma Agricultural Center at Yuma - is chocked full of updates on identifying and treating concerns in low desert farm fields. 

Palumbo leads the UA’s vegetable IPM program at Yuma.

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About 90 percent of the U.S.’s winter vegetable supply is grown in Yuma County and adjoining Imperial County (California), separated only by the Colorado River and invisible state boundary lines.

The bi-monthly newsletter is important, and keeps growers and pest control advisers abreast on late-breaking vegetable news, including the damaging bagrada bug. This pest has invaded cole crop fields during the fall months over the last six years, less so in recent years as a result of knowledge gained by the IPM program, and the methods learned to better control the pest.

Last year included severe outbreaks of downy mildew disease in winter lettuce so Mike Matheron tapped the newsletter to provide scientific advice to growers, based on the results from his recent downy mildew trials in lettuce.

Tickes last year shared the good news that Kerb herbicide was once again available to fight weeds in leaf lettuce.

E-newsletter subscriber numbers have grown to about 850, including growers, pest control advisers, and others in Arizona, California, and across the nation, plus in northern Mexico.

A recent subscriber survey included many ‘two thumbs-up’ newsletter ratings.

The addition of a cartoon to the newsletter began several years ago, thanks to UA agronomist Marco Peña who works with the ‘Veg’ IPM program and has drawn cartoons for the e-newsletter.

He believes, “Images are an excellent and powerful way to show agriculture to others. With cartoons, I’m trying to put smiles on people’s faces. They have so many things to worry about in agriculture today so it’s great to create smiles to help reduce their stress.”

The ‘Vegetable IPM Updates’ e-newsletter, including the cartoons, are available online at

Peña began penning vegetable industry cartoons on current issues in his free time. At first, the scientists were a bit leery about using humor but decided to give it a try. They decided to review each cartoon when completed, and if any of them had a concern the cartoon would be cancelled.

So why did Peña pitch the cartoon idea and begin to draw rural art - partly because of his appreciation for agriculture.

Peña grew up in Mexico about 20 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border at Paredones in the Mexicali Valley. He was born and raised on the family’s cotton, alfalfa, safflower, corn, and wheat farm. Peña and his brother loved drawing pictures and neither had formal art training. Doodling farm-related cartoons was fun.

Peña earned a Bachelor’s degree in agronomy at Baja University in 1983 and became a U.S. citizen in 1998. He’s currently pursuing a Master’s degree in agricultural education at UA and hopes to graduate next spring.

As it turned out, the first cartoon published in the newsletter was drawn by Tickes who also has a flare for artistic strokes. The ‘toon’ showed Tickes standing next to a telephone poll, informing a grower that the telephone pole was indeed just that – a telephone pole - and not a weed.

Peña then took over the cartoon creation. He learned how to use Photoshop software and took a video production class, and began shooting videos for the newsletter.

One of Peña’s favorite penned cartoons involved turning Mount Rushmore, featuring stone carvings of four U.S. presidents, into a vegetable IPM mountain. Using Photoshop, Peña replaced George Washington’s stone cut face with Palumbo’s, and Tickes’ face took Thomas Jefferson’s spot. Theodore Roosevelt kept his own image, and at far right Matheron was perched in Abraham Lincoln’s spot.

Before going to press, the cartoon raised a few staff eyebrows yet in the end everyone gave it the greenlight. Peña continued to draw cartoons.

In 2014, his son Juan joined the Yuma Ag Center as a laboratory assistant in charge of soil analysis and the gas chromatography machine which in part measures parts per million of herbicide residue.

Like his father, Juan had a severe itch and passion for art, and telling agriculture’s story. Today, Juan draws most of the cartoons found in the newsletters, and enjoys working with the UA team, including his father.

Family roots grow deep and are entrenched even further for the Peña family. At age one-and-a-half, Juan was diagnosed with leukemia and was treated at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. During the blood cancer battle, Marco and Juan drew even closer. At age four, the doctors proclaimed that Juan’s cancer was in remission. He’s been cancer free since.

“I remember my dad drawing to me to explain how words sound,” Juan reminisces. “As I became older and went to school, I drew on homework assignments. Drawing relaxes me.”

He took art classes in high school and an art history class at Arizona Western College (AWC) at Yuma. While he started coursework in AWC’s nursing program, he changed course and is now pursuing an associate’s degree in vegetable crop production. Agriculture truly runs in the Peña family.

Juan and his wife Isamar have a five-year-old son, Juan Manuel - Marco’s proud grandson.

Juan drew a cartoon called the ‘Southwest Pest Summit’ which featured five pests at a conference table – an armyworm (the group leader), a whitefly, bagrada bug, thrips, and flea beetle. Due to successful pest control in the Yuma area, the armyworm declares, “We need to mutate, comrades. They are using chemical warfare.”

Marking the fifth anniversary of the Vegetable IPM newsletter, Juan drew a party scene with a disco mirror ball hanging from the ceiling and huge floor speakers. On the left side of the room, Palumbo, Tickes, and Matheron are jumping up and down celebrating. To the right are a handful of pests with drinking cups and a beer keg. In essence, the IPM trio is celebrating their victory over the pests while the pests are perhaps drowning their sorrows.

One of the best cartoons to date, authored by Juan, celebrated the 2016 Summer Olympics. In the toon, the USA IPM team - all dressed in red, white, and blue - is competing ‘ag style.’ Tickes swings a hoe instead of a golf club; Palumbo swings a fly swatter (versus a tennis racket); and Matheron is a soccer player jumping over leafy green plants.

Juan believes cartoon humor is a good fit for younger people entering agriculture who tend to be more visual thinkers, due to electronic devices. One agricultural student told Juan that the cartoons help them learn the names of insects and piques their interest in agriculture.

From the scientists’ viewpoint, they are pleased with the cartoons. Matheron says the drawings humanize current issues.

“It’s comic relief; it’s not just talking about problems all the time. The cartoons are light hearted. I admire Juan’s talent,” Matheron says.

When the cartoon idea was first floated, Matheron was a bit apprehensive – would the cartoons detract from the overall message?

“Instead it’s added a human element, and allows everyone, including the newsletter readers, to take a small break from the seriousness we all face.”

John Palumbo concurs.

“We believe the cartoons have been successful. At first I wasn’t sure about them but I’ve come to enjoy them and find humor in them. In many cases, they’re using humor for educational purposes to make a point.”

Palumbo added, “Marco and Juan are obviously very talented individuals, not only because of the cartoons they draw but for everything they do for us in the vegetable IPM program.”

Palumbo has not received a complaint for a cartoon.

Marco’s position is funded predominantly by the Arizona Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crops Block Grant Program, and by the Arizona Pest Management Center.

“If it wasn’t for the specialty crop grants, the vegetable IPM program in Yuma would not exist,” Palumbo explained.

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