Meet a pest management specialist.
Malcolm Durham—Smart Bug Horti
I work as an agricultural and horticultural adviser on the management of crop pests, with a focus on integrated pest management, or IPM for short. Entomology and pathology are essential parts of flower growing. Controlling pests is a complex process, and good knowledge is essential to make good decisions because there is a very narrow range to achieve optimal control. Since flowers must be perfect to sell, even low levels of pest damage are unsatisfactory. Some traditional chemicals are failing due to the build-up of resistance in pests, so IPM is an essential technique for sustainable pest control.
My interests in science and outdoor work led me to study at Gatton, where I achieved a Bachelor of Applied Science in plant protection after four years of study. I grew up in the city, so it was a steep learning curve compared with people who grew up on farms. But I loved it and I studied hard. My career has taken me to different places in the world and has given me a variety of experiences. In South Australia, I established the first crop monitoring service in seed lucerne and worked on reducing the frequency and rates of chemical usage, which encouraged natural beneficial bugs and made the crop more sustainable. Later, I worked on potatoes in Turkey. I then returned to Australia to work with strawberries and flowers.
Formal training is essential to what I do, as I need to understand complex processes including insect and disease lifecycles, the effects of temperature, chemistry, how chemical controls work, photosynthesis, plant protection mechanisms and microbiology. Good observation in the field is the foundation of successful monitoring and control of pests. The job requires lots of reading, networking and research to keep up with developing knowledge, and also to create your own new information. Daily I walk through fields checking insect and disease levels with my hand lens to see if populations are increasing, static or decreasing. Decisions are then based on this information, such as whether we need to release beneficial bugs or spray or both. I also help farmers with plant health and nutrition, irrigation and other aspects of crop management. Reports are written on-farm which describe the course of action the farmer should take. It is important to discuss issues with the farmer as our recommendations often must be tailored to specific requirements, depending on issues such as when the crop is due to be harvested. I also spend several hours each weekend doing invoices, although I employ some help with bookkeeping.
My work is challenging but I love it. Every field is a battle field and I'm the general who has to manage all the resources to get good pest control and a quality crop! I need to anticipate a pest or disease problem then use control methods which have minimal unwanted side effects. I am passionate about population dynamics where beneficial bugs can beat large pest numbers, although sometimes they need some help. It is a perfect illustration of science in practice. My work can be physically challenging, as I must keep going all day to complete farm inspections, and greenhouses can be very hot at 45°C or more. There are often early starts to travel to farms, and walking all day - which is actually a good thing! For this career path, good observational skills, good knowledge, the patience to collect the right information from the field and clear thinking to make good decisions are the keys to success. Learn from your mistakes and better still - learn from others’ mistakes!