Posted by Dani Ruais
Cal Poly is full of opportunities. I did not think that I would have found an interest in plant protection science while I was here, but I found that I have deep fascination with insects and their interaction with plants. After my introductory entomology class with Dr. Headrick, I decided that I would concentrate on plant protection sciences, and filled out the necessary paperwork for my concentration that same day. During the rest of my student career at Cal Poly, I took all the plant protection science classes that were offered: vertebrate pest management, advanced weed management, insect pest management, plant pathology, biological pest control, etc. Going through the plant protection program was easy enough. The program takes an integrated management approach to controlling pests which basically means that you monitor as much as you can (intro: Bug Detective), and then use the least invasive controls first before progressing to chemical controls, in addition to coming up with plans to use several different control measures in conjunction with one another. The program really makes you think about all of our impacts on natural ecosystems as well as on cropping and ornamental nursery systems.
The plant protection science program is comprehensive and prepares the student to take his or her Pest Control Advisor’s (PCA) license exam once graduated. Once I graduated, I had all the necessary educational requirements fulfilled for me to be able to take the PCA; and I passed the test my first time. The testing was in depth. But fortunately, Cal Poly professors tailor the plant protection science classes to uniquely prepare Cal Poly grads for the PCA test, as well as preparing the student to take his or her Qualified Applicators License (which is the next license I plan on receiving). PCA exam preparation lectures are also held periodically at Cal Poly for some extra help.
After I graduated, the Horticulture Unit was in need of a pesticide technician and I filled the position as I was studying to take my PCA exams. I really loved this experience. Sure it had some downsides that really taught me that maybe I do not want to do this in the future—by “this” I mean wearing a full Tyvek suit and respirator applying pesticides in a hot greenhouse in the middle of summer. I am not cut out for the heavy labor of being a pesticide applicator, but I do love to scout and recommend control measures. It also showed me that my education prepared me for real world experiences. My best friends during my position were my notes from previous classes I’ve taken, as well as the computer sites and databases that our professors have told us about so many times that we have them memorized.
As the pesticide technician at the Horticulture unit, my days consisted of monitoring the greenhouses and outdoor nursery and landscaped areas at the unit, identifying various damaging signs and symptoms, making recommendations for control measures for various weed pests, insect and mite pests, and plant pathogens, and applying those control measures that would best resolve our pest problems. I worked closely with the Horticulture Unit technician, Ellen Brack, PCA as well as with Dr. Rob Shortell, PCA and students who were growing their various enterprise projects in the greenhouses.
For instance, I had to take care of the reoccurring whitefly problems that come with growing poinsettias, and I had to monitor and work closely with the students in charge of the poinsettia growing to implement control measures. But one of the first things you want to make sure you know before diagnosing and treating a problem are the historical facts at play:
- Poinsettias are susceptible to whitefly
- Every year we grow poinsettias (usually by cuttings) we have whitefly affecting the crop
- Even when we start with certified clean stock cuttings, we have whitefly affecting the crop
- Historical weather data; pertinent environmental changes that could affect the reproductive cycles of whitefly
- Whitefly is present on other crops in the neighboring greenhouses
- Chemical controls are recorded and dated with corresponding graphs to measure effectiveness of control so we know what kind of effects our different control measures have over time
Knowing the answers to these types of questions prior to the establishment of the crop in the greenhouse allows us to use preventative measures, and physical and mechanical measures first, when they will be most effective and preventing a population to establish. Being proactive and consistent are the most important qualities in a PCA and in an integrated pest management plan. And making sure that when you apply a control measure, that it is the most reasonable one and that it is implemented 100% correctly so that they can be as effective as possible in order to not waste time and money.
By recording every observation (monitoring), gathering historically relevant facts (researching), as well as following up on every control measure to rate its effectiveness (recording) and decide whether to incorporate a control measure into an integrated pest management plan that looks at the whole picture; not just its isolated units.
Positions at Cal Poly are unique because it is Learn by doing. You have all the support you can get to prevent you from making mistakes, but even if you make a mistake and say burn all the plants with the wrong dose of pesticides, you do not get fired or ruin your career. Instead, you catch some flak, learn from your mistakes, and try to amend the situation. The position was equally challenging to control all pests at the unit, as well as to use and expand my knowledge base. I had the flexibility to try out different sprayers, different chemicals, various application methods, gain experience using beneficial insects, etc. I came away with probably a larger variety of knowledge than a lot of pest control advisors who have worked in one or two crops their whole careers. I got to work with such a variety of pests and crops and environmental situations that I feel almost like a jack of all trades- a little knowledge about everything pest related!