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In Profile: UC Farm Advisor helps organic farm, town co-exist

If you’ve ever wondered what exactly UC’s farm advisors do, one answer is that they’re peacemakers.
They are a lot more than that, of course. They are also agricultural experts whose research helps California produce more than 45 percent of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.
But peace making and diplomacy are sometimes part of the job. In the Southern California town of Jacumba, for instance, residents were ready to shut down an organic farm they believed was responsible for an intolerable problem with eye gnats.

That’s where floriculture and nursery farm advisor Jim Bethke stepped in, putting his skills as an entomologist to use in figuring out a solution that will allow town and farm to co-exist.
The tiny, irritating flies – which are drawn to people’s eyes, nose, and ears in the search for protein – were making outdoor life in Jacumba unbearable, Bethke said. Townspeople were furious.

Officials with San Diego County wanted to support the farm, but knew the community needed relief. In 2008, they asked Bethke for help.

“Being an entomologist with UC is about research and education. I wondered, ‘Is there something I can do to help solve the problem?’”

Bethke’s first step was to confirm that the farm – which directly abuts the town – was the source of the gnats. As it turned out, production methods at the organic lettuce farm had created a perfect environment for the flies to flourish.
Working with the farmer, Bethke then began testing integrated pest management methods to reduce the irritating bugs.
This year, using a combination of barriers, trapping and spraying with an organic pesticide made of rosemary oil, Bethke succeeded in cutting the number of gnats by 60 -70 percent.
“The number of gnats is still staggering, and the humans are a food source,” Bethke said. “So it’s still a problem.”
Undeterred, Bethke began investigating how high eye gnats can fly. His research showed that if the grower erected an 8-foot high wall along its border with Jacumba, it could eliminate 99 percent of the gnats.
Through the whole process, Bethke and his colleagues have kept the community, the county, and the grower informed about the results of their research, and in the process educated people about the eye gnat and effective methods for its control.
Using an online collaboration tool developed by UCOP’s agriculture and natural resources division, everyone can see research findings, ask questions, and get updates on any actions Bethke has taken.
Community meetings have further helped ease tensions, and Bethke expects the controversy to reach an amicable conclusion.
“The community, the farmer, and the county supervisor are all very happy and satisfied with UC’s research and actions. It’s a good example of cooperation between UC and county government, and the community,” he said.
And the fruits of Bethke’s labor will continue to pay off.
His research into organic pesticides, as well as methods for developing effective traps and barriers are already being put to use in some other desert communities where agricultural production has allowed eye gnats to flourish.
“The work we’re doing in Jacumba will certainly help us elsewhere,” Bethke said.

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