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As a young girl growing up near Beltsville, Maryland, Gwen Hoheisel didn’t like getting dirty and she hated bugs. Today, the Washington State University Extension educator spends her workdays in the fields and her vacation time camping in the Mexican desert collecting insects and cactus specimens.

Hoheisel began her role as extension educator for Benton and Franklin Counties last September, succeeding Jack Watson, who retired. She is responsible for educational programs related to viticulture, tree fruit, and high-value specialty crops, which include blueberries and raspberries grown in eastern Washington. Total acreage for commercial blueberries in eastern Washington is not known, although she estimated that there are around 25 large growers, with one grower reported to have 1,000 acres.

Though her résumé is dotted with work experience, references, and studies related to insects, it wasn’t until her last semester at the University of Maryland in College Park that she was turned on to insects. She was majoring in zoology, only because she was interested in biology and science but didn’t want to be a doctor. While taking a class about populations, the lab portion studied insect populations. "It was there that I fell in love with lacewings and other insects," Hoheisel said.

After graduating, she spent three months in Costa Rica working for the Organization for Tropical Studies at the La Selva Biological Field Station to learn if she was truly interested in entomology. While there, she identified ant species and assisted with research projects investigating pest management in banana plantations.

Convinced of her interest in insects, she received a master’s degree in entomology from Pennsylvania State University in 2002 and wrote her thesis about integrated pest management techniques in standard and genetically modified vegetable crops.

Travel out West

Hoheisel came to WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser in 2003. As a research associate for Dr. Julie Tarara with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she worked on a grape yield estimation project, analyzing field data, writing manuscripts, creating posters for grower and scientific meetings, and collaborating on viticulture extension education. She also assisted Dr. Markus Keller, WSU viticulturist. While working for USDA, she gained knowledge of molecular biology through assisting Dr. Nick Grünwald, who is stationed at the Prosser research unit.

One of her strengths when applying for the extension job was that she had built relationships with many of the scientists involved in the state’s research community. Her priority now is getting out in the field to meet growers.

Industry needs

To learn about industry concerns, Hoheisel recently conducted an industry needs assessment, surveying tree fruit, grape, and small fruit growers. From the survey, she has identified industry priorities and, in collaboration with other researchers, is developing educational programs of applied research.

Among the concerns mentioned in the survey were nutrient management, organics, sustainable farming, alternatives to organophosphate pesticides, and water management. For blueberries, cold hardiness was highlighted.

In viticulture and tree fruit, she plans to help growers adopt safer and softer alternatives to organophosphate pesticides. Growers are concerned about the loss of OPs and how to manage pests without them, she said.

"My job is to incorporate current research that’s being done by other researchers and make sure that growers know how to apply it," Hoheisel said. "I need to make sure that growers know how to use softer materials for pests like cherry fruit fly. By 2012, that’s it, there’s no more Guthion. I’m telling growers to practice now and learn how to get along without it and get the kinks out before it’s gone."

She believes that while most large growers are technologically savvy, intermediate and smaller growers don’t have the time to use decision models and Internet tools designed for pest management and other farming practices. "That’s my job—to help them learn how to use tools on the Internet and encourage their use."

Hoheisel will be working with Dr. Gary Grove, director of WSU’s AgWeatherNet, to link grape pest biology with weather data and test the software. She also is working with Dr. Herb Hinman, WSU economist, to update a cherry production bulletin entitled Cost of Establishing and Producing Sweet Cherries. The revised production costs will more accurately reflect industry trends of high density plantings and varieties that expand the season.

Another project she is collaborating on is developing a pocket grape pest identification guide. Similar pocket guides already are used by the tree fruit industry.

Collecting

She and partner Paul Blom, who works at the Prosser station for the USDA, are the parents of ten-month-old Joseph. They spend weekends and annual vacations as museum volunteers at a natural history museum in Boise, Idaho, and in Baja, Mexico, at a scientific investigation center.

It’s unlikely that Joseph will grow up afraid of insects. When he was just weeks old, Hoheisel and Blom took him along on a camping and insect collection trip to Nevada where they saw a mass migration of Mormon crickets