15 November 2004

Scout Clout

By T.J. Burnham
California Farmer Magazine

Photo © 1999 California Farmer Magazine

Growers can benefit by training workers to monitor for pests while performing other tasks in the field. By T.J. Burnham

Few farmers use all their eyes. By training their hired field personnel to keep a lookout for potentially devastating insects and disease, they could beef up monitoring and reduce the chance of costly losses.

However, grower interest in adding irrigators and crew foremen to the scouting task force isn't a widely accepted concept, it seems. At a summer field day to promote the idea near Woodland, Mario Moratorio, Yolo-Solano counties farm advisor, found the turnout sparse. "Maybe it was partly due to the late season and the fact harvest was under way," he says. "Anyway, this is a good idea, and one which a few growers are already using in grapes."

Despite low field day attendance to learn about the practice, UC Cooperative Extension personnel are touting it as worth investigation. "Some of your best field scouts presently may walk tomato fields and only pull a few weeds or water your plants," says Gene Miyao, Yolo-Solano counties farm advisor. Miyao and Moratorio want to provide cross training to help field workers learn some elementary-level scouting techniques.

"This isn't intended to be a replacement for pest control advisors, but a supplement to the monitoring effort," Miyao says. "The more eyes in the field, the better the chances of spotting problems before they begin."

Teach Workers to Scout

Farm worker scouting is a good idea, since personnel already in the field can be added to the monitoring task force, Moratorio believes. "They're out there moving irrigation pipes and walking the fields every day of the week for seven to nine hours," he says. "If they know how to distinguish the pests and diseases which concern a farmer, and they've been given a system to report such findings, you will have increased your scouting force substantially."

Workers spend more time in the field than foremen, growers or PCAs find possible, he explains. "It would pay off for a farmer in terms of the best early warning system possible which does not cost much money," he says.

Farmers can help workers understand what they see in the field by providing labor with small color photos of pests. Sample cards that workers can carry in their pockets are already circulated by Moratorio, who uses University of California IPM Manual photos that he has laminated and labeled with names of pests in Spanish.

"You have to teach these workers who they should report their findings to, and encourage them to take the time to do so," he adds. "What this provides for the farmer is a quicker way to react to buildup of a problem."

Workers would not need to take much time out from their assigned jobs to check for pests, he says. "People moving pipes usually work with a burst of energy, then have time to do other things once finished. There is time between jobs to look for signs of pests and diseases." The scouting effort often will require only a few minutes in every hour the workers are in the field.

A good practice for personnel scouting comes as workers who set furrow irrigation siphons wait in the field to assure the system is working, Moratorio says.

Workers already know "more than farmers realize" about pests, he says. "They've already seen these pests in the fields, but they may be challenged since they do not know the English translation for the insect they're seeing. They have to be taught what the English name is for the pests they're looking at."

It helps to train workers as scouts if a farmer conducts a trial run with workers, which teaches them how to find and identify pests, he says.

"This is an idea growers are missing out on," he says. "Why not teach your workers to look at the plants rather than clods of dirt as they walk the field?"

A Successful Program

Employee scouts are already used by California grape growers on the North Coast, where area IPM advisor Lucia Varela conducted extensive training for workers in Spanish. Vineyard managers in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties found the program worked well. As a reflection of the success of worker scouts in grapes, Moratorio's workshops this season in Lake and Mendocino counties turned out a "tremendous response," he reports.

Some vineyards on the North Coast are using as many as eight worker scouts as a result of the training program, he says.

While nearly 35 turned out for a North Coast worker scout meeting this year, Sacramento Valley tomato farmers failed to attend his mid-summer meeting on the same subject. "It is new and perhaps the meeting was held at the wrong time of the year," he explains of the harvest session.

"We have to sell the idea to foremen and owners to help show them they may be missing a management component," Moratorio says.

Yolo County farmer Bruce Rominger is one of the few farmers in his area who has used employee field scouts with success. "We haven't taken part in any official UC programs for training, but I do talk with my irrigators about what is going on in the field regularly," he says.

"I have workers come to me and say they think something is wrong in the fields, and that alerts me to take a closer look."

Even if they can't identify the pest or the disease, they bring him plant samples to have a look, and that helps keep him tuned into field situations, Rominger believes.

"It helps having more eyes out in the field," he says.

But he doubts that he will expand on the program. "Our workers are stretched with their work and don't have a lot of time to look for pests," he says. "They're always busy, and not just sleeping under a tree somewhere waiting to change the water."

Miyao urges use of worker scouts to augment IPM programs in processing tomatoes, which depend heavily on monitoring. "Having more eyes in the field gives a farmer more people reporting on problems, and that makes a lot of sense," he says.

"Cross-training workers to watch for pests would make them more valuable employees."

But Miyao has not seen much use of the concept in Yolo and Solano counties. "Monitoring is critical to IPM success," he says. "This can only help."

The small turnout at the meeting may indicate the difficulty growers have thinking about cross-training their workers. Concerns over detracting workers from their primary tasks may be at the root of disinterest.

Washington Consultant Teaches Workers To Watch

By Rene Featherstone
California Farmer Magazine

Field scouting by on-farm workers is getting a boost from a private Washington integrated pest management consultant who trains laborers of farmer clients at the task.

Independent consultant Nana Simone teaches farm workers to help monitor pest control traps for the likes of codling moths in pears. As a result, producers such as Rob Lynch in the Yakima Valley feel they're getting more for their money.

Both the workers and the consultant "are far more valuable to us," now that they're interacting weekly on pest management, he believes. The synergies in training workers to scout are helping his bottom line by providing cost efficiencies to assist fruit farmers to compete with foreign growers who pay less for labor, Lynch says.

By adding eyes in the field, he can also improve his spray timing, which is more demanding today with the advent of spray products that need to be applied at precise pest populations, he says. "If you miss (spraying) by two days, you're up the creek," he says.

What this means is that farmers must constantly watch their crops, he says, a chore helped by adding workers to the monitoring effort.

Farm workers who get involved in pest monitoring gain a better understanding of the orchard, he adds.

Empower The Farm

Simone was in South Africa when she discovered the idea of using farm workers to scout. The idea fit the needs of Pacific Northwest farmers well, as an alternative to paying private monitors to check traps for moths, she says. When hiring scouts, she complains that she is "paying some guy mostly for driving from orchard to orchard."

Instead, she likes the alternative to "empower the farm" to assist with the scouting job.

Good farm labor monitoring isn't for everyone. You have to be selective when it comes to picking workers for the job, Simone says. "You can't just show somebody once how to do the job and then leave them alone."

She conducts a winter class for farm workers growers choose to do the monitoring task.

© 1999 California Farmer Farm Program, Co Inc, October 1999, pp. 30, 32-33.

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