Scientist's foresight paved the way for safer pest management during his career
Phil Phillips ended his nearly 30-year career as an IPM advisor for UCCE and the UC Statewide IPM Program when he retired July 1.
Phillips was born in San Gabriel, near Los Angeles, and later moved to the Ojai Valley where he has lived for 56 years. After receiving his PhD in entomology from UC Riverside in 1974, he worked for 7 years as a private consultant and pest control advisor (PCA) in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties.
In October 1980, he got in on the ground floor of the new UC Statewide IPM Program as an IPM advisor for UCCE in those same three counties. Based in Ventura County, Phillips was responsible for helping growers to adopt pest management programs in citrus, avocados, strawberries, grapes and vegetables through research and education. In addition, he developed several UC IPM manuals as technical advisor, co-author, and contributor.
One of his biggest research achievements was discovering the first populations of the glassy-winged sharpshooter (GWSS) in California. Three years before Pierce's disease devastated Temecula Valley vineyards and GWSS was recognized as a invasive species critical in the spread of the pathogen, Phillips had already developed the first baseline biological and life history data for GWSS.
Phillip’s research was used to develop both quarantine regulations and area-wide management programs for the GWSS to contain Pierce's disease. He was also appointed to an emergency task force on the invasive pest and Pierce’s disease in 2000 and was invited by the Australian government to conduct a national awareness program on Pierce's disease throughout Australia’s grape production regions in late 2001. The ban on importation of California table grapes into Australia was lifted after his discussions with the head of biosecurity at AQUIS, the equivalent of USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Australia.
GWSS wasn't the first time Phillips was ahead of the curve. In 1974 he, along with his consulting partner Charles Wood, introduced the use of predaceous mites to their Ventura County strawberry growers to control twospotted mites. This was 10 years before the rest of the industry shifted to using them as a major biological control measure. "Several of my research demonstration projects focused on showing PCAs and growers that some age-old perceived pest problems, like citrus red mite, citrus thrips, and citrus bud mite, were in fact minor problems in coastal agriculture that didn't require any, or only minimal, pesticide intervention," says Phillips.
Phillips concentrated on possible impacts of pesticides on food safety long before the mass media focused attention on this issue. In 1987, his IPM expertise influenced a TV news video called "Clouds of Fear" about the possibility of pesticide clouds drifting over neighborhoods or schools as the boundaries between urban and agricultural land began to blur. The segment also addressed pesticide use and food safety. Phillips received an award from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA) for the video and for his public service efforts dealing with food safety issues.
In 1988, Phillips received a national award from the NACAA for his research that persuaded the citrus industry to adopt skirt pruning (removing low hanging shoots) as a way to reduce overall pesticide use while also helping to manage a multitude of pests including ants, snails, Fuller's rose beetle, weeds, and brown rot.
Ben Faber, a UCCE farm advisor from Ventura County, worked with Phillips on a project studying avocado thrips beginning in 1998. Their research determined the insect's biology and the relationship of predators to it under southern California conditions. The study also revealed during which crop development stage that thrips feed on the fruit, allowing PCAs and growers to focus pesticide treatments at a time when thrips were susceptible, thus reducing unnecessary insecticide treatments. "Phil's IPM work in avocado, grape, citrus, strawberry, and vegetables has made for a safer, surer source of food and more environmentally sound practices," said Faber. "His work on grapes has also allowed growers to better control black vine weevil, grape leafhopper, powdery mildew and Botrytis (a fungal disease of wine grapes). Phil demonstrated how just controlling dust can bring pests under control by optimizing biological controls. His research has helped save money and improve crop production methods, not only here but worldwide. He has taught all of us to do our best."
Phillips also encouraged many colleagues during his career. "As a soil scientist by training, I have been so grateful to have Phil act as one of my mentors as I have progressed through my career," said Mary Bianchi, horticulture farm advisor, UCCE, San Luis Obispo. "He has counseled and included me on extension and research projects, encouraged me to present and publish my research, and was always willing to review newsletter and grower articles. In some ways, more importantly, Phil has always taken the time to call with a kind word or a 'job well done,' which has been deeply appreciated."
Phillips' background is well rounded, as a licensed pest control advisor, a board certified entomologist, a certified crop advisor, and a DPR-qualified pesticide applicator.
In more recent years, Phillips' fluency in Spanish allowed him to search for natural enemies of invasive pests throughout Mexico and Central America, as well as to give IPM presentations in Argentina, Spain, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Over the years, Phillips' role as an IPM advisor has changed "from developing and fine tuning pest management programs for older, existing pests to developing and tweaking existing IPM programs to accommodate new invasive pests," he said. "Agricultural research has shifted emphasis toward a more targeted approach aimed at specific pests and stages in their life cycles, or biology, where pesticides are used surgically, rather than as sledge hammers."
Phillips said he would like "to be remembered for helping mainstream agriculture to transition from broad-spectrum pesticide use to reliance on a more stable and ecologically based integrated program of pest management where biological and cultural control measures are considered before using selectively targeted pesticides."
His future plans include backpacking in the Sierra mountains, fishing, treasure hunting, civil war reenacting and model railroading. He also plans to volunteer as a carpenter and teacher with his wife, Dana, to help develop and construct schools for displaced Mayan communities in northern Guatemala.
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