Learning for Life: Pest scouts ready to help

Last November I wrote about a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, which would result in hiring four part-time pest scouts who would visit farms and ranches in Alaska to teach farmers how to scout their fields, pastures and animals for pests. The term “pest” refers to diseases, insects and weeds, and these pests could be native or introduced. I asked people to participate in a survey that asked about what their most troublesome pests were in their gardens, fields and animals.

There was a good response to the survey from throughout the state and it has helped us to understand which pests are most troublesome to farmers around Alaska. We have hired the four part-time pest scouts and they have been trained on the diseases, insects and weeds they can expect to find as well as the ones that could be big problems for Alaska, if they should establish in the state. The training included a hands-on practical for looking for lice and ticks on beef cattle as well as collecting fecal samples to look for internal parasites.

There are pest scouts now in the Cooperative Extension offices of Kenai (907-262-5824), Palmer (907-745-3360), Fairbanks (907-474-1530) and Delta Junction (907-895-4215). They will be contacting farms, ranches and greenhouses for permission to visit and teach pest scouting techniques and the reporting process for when the farmer finds something of concern. If you are a farmer or rancher, you can request a pest scout to come visit. This also includes people growing peonies and other plants for sale or people who have a high tunnel or greenhouse that is used to produce products for sale.

In addition to the pest scout funding described above, some other grants were funded that will expand the scope of scouts’ work and increase the numbers of hours they can work. These grants come from partnerships with the Alaska Division of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. Scouts will be setting traps to collect gypsy moths in places where they might enter Alaska. They will also trap exotic wood-boring insects that could cause serious problems in Alaska if they should get here. Another grant is for helping us collect native lygus bugs and thrips on peony farms in Alaska. We are working with seven cooperating farms this summer and plan to expand to most peony farms next year.

We all know that Alaska is amazing for a variety of reasons. For me, one of the best things about Alaska is the health of our ecosystem and our low number of exotic pests compared to all the other states in the United States. For my part, I want to keep it this way and maybe even reduce the number of pests that are here now. Unfortunately, I cannot do this alone. Fortunately, there are many people willing to help and now we have some financial support that can help us reduce pest problems.

The first step is identification and we are doing that with your help. In the past we have waited for people to come to us and tell us about their pest problems. Now we are actively visiting growers and teaching them how to scout for pests. From here, the next step will be working on controlling the pests and hopefully doing some eradication. In the following year, we will also be conducting pest detector trainings for the public. As we get that training set up, look for the announcement in this column.

Enjoy our planting season and be on the look out for pests that are causing problems, especially those you have not seen before.

Steven Seefeldt is the Tanana District agriculture and horticulture agent for the Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He can be reached at 907-474-2423 or ssseefeldt@alaska.edu.

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