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Helping Growers Make the Move to Biocontrols

January 20, 2015  By Dave Harrison

Ferguson, with longtime colleague Dr. Ray Cerkauskas and a co-op student checking a project.

February 2015 – Retiring OMAFRA specialist Gillian Ferguson’s first projects dealt with the basics of implementing IPM with greenhouse cucumbers and peppers. The challenge back then was that there was really only one biocontrol agent for each of these pests.

Greenhouse pests are breathing a little easier for the present. Three key Ontario-based pest management specialists – Dr. Les Shipp (AAFC Harrow), Graeme Murphy (OMAFRA Vineland), and Gillian Ferguson (OMAFRA Harrow) – have retired.

We recently had the chance for a Question and Answer interview with Ferguson before she stepped down as an OMAFRA specialist.


Question: When did you start work with Harrow? Do you remember that first week on the job?

Answer: I started during the summer of 1989 with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and was located at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Harrow.

During my first week, I thought the other OMAFRA specialists were very friendly and welcoming. I especially remember that during my early days, I had a lot of support and guidance from the late Clem Fisher, who was the greenhouse vegetable specialist at the time. I was very fortunate to have had Clem stay on for about a year after I had started, to address the million and one questions I had, and to help me find my bearings.

Also playing a key role in my early days was Shalin Khosla who, at that time, had already been working with the greenhouse vegetable sector, and who fortunately, also held an office at the Research Centre in Harrow.

What were some of the early research projects you worked on?
My very first set of projects dealt with getting familiar with the basics of implementing IPM (integrated pest management) in commercial greenhouse cucumbers and peppers. With assistance from summer students, I set up a scouting program at three operations and attempted to manage whiteflies, thrips and spider mites using biological control agents.  

This was certainly a challenge because in those days, there was really only one biocontrol agent for each of these pests. Nowadays, there are multiple options for most of the major economic pests. There are at least five different species of biocontrol agents, along with a few different formulations of some species that are commercially available for Western flower thrips, about six species for two-spotted spider mites, and about six species also for whiteflies.

How has the industry grown over the years?
The greenhouse vegetable sector has grown by leaps and bounds. It is a very dynamic and progressive sector that is determined to remain on the cutting edge of all aspects of production.

In regard to pest management, whereas 25 years ago there was virtually no use of biological control agents and no scouting and monitoring of crops, these practices are now commonplace in greenhouse vegetable operations.

The greenhouse sector, as a whole, appreciates the value of implementing integrated management (IPM) techniques because of the various benefits of pesticide reduction, resistance management, higher quality product, etc. I believe that the sector currently views IPM as an integral part of their production system, and considers it to be essential to remaining competitive in the global marketplace.

You work quite closely with the AgCanada researchers at Harrow? How do you describe this teamwork approach?
Being able to work in close proximity to the researchers at Harrow has been extremely advantageous. It has facilitated two-way communication in keeping abreast of the pest issues of the day and in developing ways to address them.

Moreover, it has contributed immensely to the implementation of research projects in which we were able to take a balanced and holistic approach. Of immense value was the ability to remain current with the latest research findings generated at the centre, which in turn facilitated timely communication of information to the growers.  In addition, working in close proximity with the researchers has assisted OMAFRA in administering the annual OMAFRA greenhouse course held for growers and other members of the sector.

What are some of the most recent research projects you’ve worked on?
Over the last two summers, I worked on evaluating bee-vectoring as a means of distributing microbial insecticides in several commercial crops for managing cabbage loopers and thrips. I did this in collaboration with Dr. Les Shipp, recently retired greenhouse entomologist at AAFC’s Research Centre in Harrow, with support from Biobest, Plant Products, and technical help from Josie Brimner and Suzie Weaver.  During this year’s trial, we also worked with Martin Erlandson, microbiologist of AAFC’s Saskatoon Research Centre, who provided a microbial biocontrol agent for suppression of loopers. This biocontrol agent will be soon registered as a foliar application in greenhouse vegetables.

Another commercial trial completed this year involved evaluating the use of pollen to supplement the diet of predatory mites released for thrips control. This trial was also done in conjunction with Shipp at Tom Magri’s Greenhouses, with support from Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, Koppert Canada, Plant Products, and technical assistance from Suzie Weaver and AAFC summer students.

What have you enjoyed most about your job?
One of the most enjoyable parts of my job has been running trials to evaluate potential options that could assist growers in managing their pest and disease problems. It was always exciting to directly witness the benefits, or lack thereof, of a particular product or system. These trials were often carried out in collaboration with co-operating growers. It was never a problem to find growers who were open to new ideas and possibilities, and willing to assist in these projects. I will be forever grateful to them all.

Furthermore, as a result of my numerous interactions in the sector, I have had the opportunity to meet many truly warm, wonderful individuals whom I will remember always. I feel really lucky to have experienced the generosity, kindness and cooperation of so many Ontario greenhouse vegetable growers, distributors, suppliers, and registrants whom I won’t mention individually for fear of omitting some unintentionally.

Have you made many plans for retirement?
My last working day with OMAFRA was Jan. 29 of this year. My immediate plan is to indulge myself in a variety of activities that I have not had the time for. Some of my recreational interests include catching up on a stack of books that I’ve been meaning to read, getting more familiar with photography, music, and painting, and travelling as much as I feasibly can.

(I also plan to focus on getting more physically fit, and so my goal in this regard is, some good day, to be able to execute one proper and complete chin-up! That’s all I’m asking…just one chin-up!)  

On a more serious note, I would also like to volunteer and assist with worthy causes and less fortunate communities, wherever they may be. If I can use some of my expertise gleaned over the past 25 years while volunteering, all the better.

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