ONTARIO, Ore. - An entomologist formerly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture aims to help growers in Malheur County control key pests while reducing their use of pesticides in his new job with Oregon State University.

Stuart Reitz, who was with the USDA in Tallahassee, Fla., since 1999, started work in August as a field crops expert in Ontario.

In his new position, he will help farmers increase the number of "good" insects that kill crop-damaging pests like thrips, an insect that transmits a virus and can seriously reduce the yield and size of onions. In potatoes, he'll identify and study insects that attack aphids and psyllids, also known as jumping plant lice.

Reitz will also help growers determine the optimal amounts of fertilizer to apply. Too much fertilizer can attract unwanted pests.

"It's a holistic way of figuring out the most effective way to control pests," Reitz said. "We like to think of it as a win-win situation. Growers can produce a better crop with fewer pests and fewer inputs."

Reitz is also helping growers determine how best to use chemicals to reduce their environmental impact and to keep pests from becoming resistant to them.

Reitz will also email or send text messages to farmers with updates on pests, and he'll post the information on the website of the Pacific Northwest and Treasure Valley Pest Alert Network at http://www.tvpestalert.net.

Another of his duties is helping farmers comply with new, more restrictive federal rules for fumigating fields that took effect Dec. 1, 2012. Among other requirements, farmers must now have a large buffer area around fields and ensure field workers have appropriate training to handle chemicals. 

"There's no beating around the bush - these are hazardous chemicals and at the end of the sprayer is dangerous stuff," Reitz said. "So people need to be careful with it."

Reitz brings to the table his knowledge gained as a former co-director for the Center for Biological Control at Florida A&M University. The center aims to reduce the use of agricultural pesticides by using beneficial insects and pathogens to control crop-damaging pests.

In his new job, Reitz will spend a quarter of his time conducting research and the rest of the time helping growers in his role as a field crops expert with the OSU Extension Service.

"It's been a lot of learning and trying to get out and meet growers and other people in industry," Reitz said. "I got here at the end of the growing season but I've had some projects I've been able to get going."

The public-facing aspect of the Extension Service was a new role that appealed to Reitz, who earned a doctorate in entomology and a master's in zoology from Clemson University in South Carolina.

"You want to know that what you're doing has direct impact," Reitz said. "Anybody can come into the office and have a question or a problem, and we can provide an answer."

Although state and federal sources fund Reitz's position, taxpayers in Malheur County pay for his office and operational support. Malheur County voters approved a property tax levy in May 2012 to hire a second crops agent and a 4-H assistant and to support Extension-related research at OSU's Malheur Experiment Station. A search for the second field crops faculty member, whose salary will be funded by this tax levy is under way. That person will focus on crops other than onions and potatoes and on water quality management in agriculture.

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Stuart Reitz, 541-881-1417