US: AgriLife Extension hires new East Texas IPM specialist

A new Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service integrated pest management specialist believes his research background, as well as his experience in community development, will allow him to serve his clientèle better. Erfan Vafaie’s first day at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton was Dec. 2.

Vafaie’s previous position was as a research technician at the Vineland Research and Innovation Center, Ontario, Canada, where he studied biological control of whiteflies and improving monitoring techniques for spotted-wing fruit flies.

“I worked directly with growers and collaborated with other researchers and government scientists to propose collaboration tools on a national scale,” Vafaie said. “Prior to Vineland, I worked in the LED (light emitting diode) industry as the specialist in greenhouse grow LEDs, and was an operations associate intern for a startup urban farming company in Toronto. Before that, I was an IPM consultant for Integrated Crop Research and Management in British Columbia.”.

Erfan Vafaie(right), Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service integrated pest management specialist, Overton, confers with Dr. Brent Pemberton, Texas A&M AgriLife Research horticulturist, on the East Texas bedding plant industry. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Robert Burns)

He received his bachelor’s degree in science with honors from the University of Western Ontario and his master’s in pest management from Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, studying biological control of aphids.

Vafaie said he has a strong background in volunteer community development, which he believes will aid him as an AgriLife Extension specialist.

“Part of what I learned in community development was the ability to first adapt and learn about that community,” he said. “And once I’ve integrated into that community, learning how I can contribute to better it. The same thing applies to this field. I feel like a lot of my community development activities will contribute to my ability to communicate to growers, communicate to the industry, see what are their needs, and then being able to address those needs.”

Vafaie said his first order of business is to personally visit with East Texas ornamental plant growers. He knows that whiteflies are one problem for the region, as they are in Canada, but he isn’t planning any greenhouse trials until he’s been brought up to speed by the growers.

“I don’t want to make the assumption that whiteflies are a big problem here,” he said. “For the industry back in Canada, they were a problem because of pesticide resistance, and growers were looking for some means of biological control.”

In Canada, there were some good candidates for biological control, including parasitic wasps, which sometimes could work in conjunction with limited pesticide usage, but he doesn’t know yet if the same species would work here, Vafaie said.

This mix of control approaches—biological, pesticide and other management strategies—are the core of the integrated pest management concept, Vafaie said. Pesticides are not abandoned, but instead used judicially as needed, integrated into a more comprehensive strategy.

Such an integrated pest management strategy can also be a selling point for the industry, as consumers increasingly favor more biological controls, he said.

“Erfan has an excellent skill set that I expect he will utilize to enhance his program,” said Dr. Charles Allen, AgriLife Extension program leader and statewide integrated pest management coordinator, San Angelo. “His strengths in electronic information processing and delivery will be a valuable asset.”

“I expect he will develop a program that will provide growers with information they will use to improve the profitability of their businesses. In the process, I believe he will become a trusted, go-to source of information for the industry, and that he will develop strong collaborations and a good reputation and working relationship among his colleagues at Texas A&M and across the country.”

AgriLife horticulturists estimate the East Texas bedding plant industry has had a $500 million annual economic impact on the region for at least a decade. Though not entirely recession proof, the industry hasn’t experienced the downturn in consumer spending that other businesses did in the last few years.

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