Farm Progress

University hiring priorities for farm advisors questioned by California farmers as industry loses important row and field crop entomologists to retirement

May 19, 2017

8 Min Read
UC row crop entomologists will soon be in short-supply as two key researchers retire this year, including long-time IPM advisor Pete Goodell, seen here inspecting sorghum during a 2016 outbreak of sugarcane aphids in the San Joaquin Valley.Todd Fitchette

The near simultaneous loss of three University of California row crop entomologists could leave row crop growers – rice, cotton and alfalfa in particular – scrambling to find qualified researchers to help them with pest control issues.

Peter Goodell, a Cooperative Extension integrated pest management (IPM) advisor based at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, and Eric Natwick, entomology advisor with the UCCE in Imperial County, will retire June 30. Their retirements come after the recent death of Extension Entomologist Larry Godfrey, 60, a respected scientist and researcher in California rice and cotton.

Godfrey worked with Goodell in cotton to help develop pest control standards for aphids and whiteflies, who pests that can contribute to sticky cotton in California and Arizona.

Previous to the announced retirements, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) Vice President Glenda Humiston released her list of 26 approved positions with the Cooperative Extension. Some of those positions are for CE advisors in various county offices while the remainders were for CE specialists, to be based on a UC campus or a research and extension center.

The retirements of Natwick and Goodell will leave a void of expertise in prime vegetable and row crop regions in the state as the current plan does not include refilling their positions. According to Humiston, automatically filling vacancies that occur “is not always a good answer” as conditions and the need for certain academic expertise can change over time.

Though Natwick has been based in a single county and Goodell’s position more regional, the positions demanded it. Natwick works in a region that grows numerous winter vegetables, yet still grows cotton and alfalfa.

Goodell has been a part of the UC’s IPM program for decades and was the principal investigator and subject-matter expert in a report to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation on the use of chlorpyrifos against key pests in almonds, alfalfa, citrus and cotton.

In early 2016 Goodell and Godfrey submitted a proposal to effectively refill Goodell’s position with an entomology extension specialist based at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. The position sought a qualified individual with an emphasis on developing and implementing sustainable IPM systems for pests of field, row and vegetable crops. A similar position proposed for the UCCE office in Tulare County was also proposed. Neither position was approved.

Natwick too has been a critical resource for pest management in field crops, alfalfa and vegetables in the low desert region of Imperial County. Most recently his work has included working to understand the sugarcane aphid in sorghum and sudangrass.

His position is likewise not included on the most current list of positions slated for rehire in 2017 and 2018.

Hiring priorities

In late 2016 Humiston released a list of positions approved for hire in five separate rounds starting with winter, 2017 and ending with spring and summer, 2018. These positions were previously selected through a lengthy process that includes input from throughout the university system.

This scheduled process elicited 138 proposals. Of those, 26 were selected for hiring; none of which explicitly included entomologists. Though Humiston admits she tries to leave “a little room to fill positions as needed,” she offered no guarantees that the positions would immediately be filled as the process to hire new Extension advisors or specialists can be lengthy.

This is not the first time UCANR has been short on particular crop experts. Several years ago Cooperative Extension ran short on grape advisors in the San Joaquin Valley. Over time those positions were refilled in the key grape-growing counties with recent graduates, though not before the grape industry complained.

Interestingly enough, one of those new viticulture advisors hired several years ago recently accepted a position with E & J Gallo in the Lodi region that could leave a gap in ongoing research to find suitable wine grape varieties that produce well under the San Joaquin Valley’s hot, dry summer conditions.

One long-time farm advisor who said he’s had “multiple offers” from private industry during his career, particularly early on, said it would appear Cooperative Extension is “the triple-A team for some of these companies” in particular commodities like grapes as young advisors can gain experience, meet key representatives in private industry, and be offered positions that the public university cannot compete with for salary and benefits.

Humiston says she understands this attraction for farm advisors and says there is little she can do to compete in that arena.

In 1988 for instance, the pay scales of Cooperative Extension advisors and their counterpart specialists on campus were decoupled. This left advisor salaries lagging behind CE specialists, which she said saw more regular pay increases. It’s one of the reasons why the on-campus CE specialist positions, as an opening appears, can sometimes be highly sought after, she says.

It’s also made the county-based advisors an easy attraction for private companies looking to expand their ranks with qualified scientists.

New ANR Vice President

Humiston came to UCANR in 2015 after serving in the Clinton and Obama administrations. More recently she served as the California State Director at the USDA’s Rural Development agency.

Prior to her appointment at UCANR, Humiston says the number of Extension advisors in the field and specialists on campus had steadily declined. “This year for the first time we’ve turned that trajectory,” she said. “We are now hiring slightly more than are retiring or leaving.”

Information from UCANR reveals that, at least in the case of pest management, seven positions were filled in 2014 and 2015, including four IPM advisors spread across the state.

In an exclusive interview with Western Farm Press, Humiston explained the uphill battle she has filling positions on a budget that has not kept pace with the times. According to the UCANR Strategic Plan for 2016-2020 the division’s budget has remained flat two out of the last five years and “has been stretched to the point that it is no longer sustainable.”

The UCANR budget for 2015-16 was $189.9 million, according to the strategic plan.

Further, the plan states that UC funding from the state remains at “the same absolute level of funding as in FY1999-2000, when it had over 80,000 fewer students and one less campus.”

Another of Humiston’s efforts continues to be maintenance and technology upgrades at the research and extension centers. One of those efforts includes wiring the facilities for high-speed internet access that for some had no broadband access until just recently.

Industry concerns

The loss of entomologists working in field crops and vegetables does not sit well with those who grow or represent them.

Public comment in support of the two entomology positions proposed for the San Joaquin Valley was positive, coming from groups including the California Specialty Crops Council, California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association, the California Alfalfa and Forage Association and individual growers.

Each articulated the benefits those positions provide alfalfa, cotton and specialty crop growers.

Comments ranged from the need to address pests using a variety of IPM methods and the concern for pesticide resistance management, to the ability to meet maximum residue limit (MRL) levels when exporting commodities.

“That would be pretty sad if they didn’t replace him,” said Fresno County farmer Joe Del Bosque of Goodell, with whom he has worked in his row, field and permanent crops.

Roger Isom, president of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association, strongly believes Extension entomologists are a necessity given today’s environmental concerns and the continued loss of chemical control methods.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Isom said of the apparent decision to not immediately refill Goodell’s position.

Isom said he has sought assistance from political consultants who also represent many of the agricultural commissions in California in hopes of find a solution to fill some of the vacant and much-needed positions within UCANR.

Because of the work Isom does with CCGGA and its sister organization, Western Agricultural Processors Association, he needs access to university research to address a host of regulatory issues. He’s heavily relied heavily on Goodell and Godfrey in addressing pest issues that can lead to sticky cotton, an issue that can and has blackballed entire growing regions from worldwide cotton markets.

As an example of reaching out beyond his borders for assistance, Isom recently began working with Texas A&M University on air quality studies simply because he needed the work done and they were willing to help. He will also partner with Fresno State University on studies related to Fusarium in cotton.

“This is a challenge,” he said of trying to find university researchers to do the kind of work farmers need to address various issues.

Jane Townsend, executive director of the California Alfalfa and Forage Association, says her industry too is concerned with the loss of critical specialists and farm advisors and the slow replacement by the University of California.

Like the cotton industry, alfalfa growers have a similar population of pests that can move back and forth between the two crops. Having entomologists with the expertise farm advisors like Natwick and Goodell share is critical.

It’s not just been alfalfa and cotton. Goodell was called to assist with an infestation of sugarcane aphids in forage sorghum in Tulare and Kern counties last summer. Troubling about this pest is it had not previously been an issue in the San Joaquin Valley and only months previously was discovered in Imperial County, where Natwick was beginning to become involved in the case.

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