ASAP Board Member Update: Richard Weinzierl

Last week, I sat down with ASAP board member Dr. Richard Weinzierl, professor of entomology employed by University of Illinois Extension. He began his description of his work by saying it has  two sides: entomology and non-entomology. The entomology side is easy to understand; that’s the field that he earned his master’s and  PhD in 30 years ago. And as he said,

“When you travel and work with the horticulture guys and the plant pathologists, you begin to sort of build a broader knowledge of what we’re all doing.”

He and several of his colleagues used this know-how to collaborate on a project called “Preparing a New Generation of Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Growers,” funded by the USDA NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and run through UIUC extension. They are use online materials and in-person classes to train people at all phases of life (as he said, “that’s why it’s not called the ‘young farmer program’”) who want help trying their hands at produce farming. Right now, the course is in its second of a projected three years of development, including video production discussions, and other readings posted on a website. A link is included at the bottom of this post, though Weinzierl described the site as “not yet polished up very well.” Once it is completed, the course and all of its materials will be free online.

The entomology side is more related to research in what is called IPM, short for Integrated Pest Management. IPM a series of strategies for determining the best and smartest ways to eradicate problematic insect populations, and along with soil studies and horticulture, it is one of the pillars of agroecology. Thorough observations are conducted before any action is taken, and these actions can include introduction of natural predators, especially for invasive species with no checks on their growth, crop rotation, and application of pesticides. Weinzierl considers “pesticides to still be pretty necessary in general”- but only those that have the least detrimental effects should be used, and they should be applied only when they are necessary.

Most of his research includes sweet corn, apples, peaches, and pumpkins due to the fact that “ there is a reason for a lot of entomology research and they’re big enough crops to justify the time spent on them.” Currently,  Weinzierl is working on curbing the spread of two invasive insect species, which he describes as “equivalent dastardly little creatures [to the emerald ash-borer].” These new pests are the spotted-wing drosophila, which feeds on small-fruit crops, and the brown marmorated stink bug, which eats fruits and vegetables.

In addition to all of this, Weinzierl still manages to teach an undergraduate course in applied entomology and IPM. He is also the Illinois SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program) coordinator for the professional development program. This work includes conducting grant-writing workshops and Face of SARE activities.

When I asked him what he liked most about his work, he first mentioned the beginning farmer class (“Everybody in the class wants to be there…it’s a hoot.”), but also said that it is very fulfilling to be able to answer farmers’ everyday questions about pest management. “There’s always a new problem” he said, but in his voice he had only eagerness for current and future challenges.