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5 Questions for Wayne Wilcox


Wayne Wilcox

Wayne Wilcox joined the Department of Plant Pathology at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station on April 1, 1984 (April Fool's Day). After a decade of working with tree fruit and berry crop growers, he assumed responsibility for leading Cornell’s grape pathology program in 1994.  His research and extension efforts focus on understanding the biology of the major fungal diseases of the crop, the activity of the materials used to control them, and applying this knowledge to developing practical control programs that integrate both cultural and chemical control components.

What inspired you to work with grapes?

I’ve always been interested in fruit production writ large and have focused on the biology and management of fruit crop diseases since I began graduate school.  After the premature and tragic passing of Dr. Roger Pearson, my predecessor in this position, I told the chair of the search committee seeking to refill it, “That’s the best position in our whole department.” Then the light bulb went on, and I managed to insinuate myself into it. 

What are the major challenges in your field?

For me, that would be trying to determine ways to provide the necessary level of disease control in a practical, economical manner with minimized inputs of fuel, chemicals, etc. That being said, “minimized” does not mean “minimal.”  Agriculture is inherently unnatural; if you really want to be natural, eat wild berries and weeds.  But we can be smart about the way that we produce our crops, including how we manage our diseases, so that we don’t poison or bankrupt ourselves in the process.  And that’s something of a challenge. 

On a more mundane note, just keeping a research and extension program fiscally viable has become a huge challenge over the past five years, and I only see it getting harder.  Nobody wants to hear public-sector employees rattling the tin cup, but it’s simply a fact that society and its elected representatives have decided not to support agricultural research and extension to the degree that they once did, and the fiscal model under which Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and similar institutions operated for so long is no longer sustainable.  How this will all shake out in the end is still anyone’s guess.

How have the research targets of your field changed since the beginning of your career?

I don’t think that the targets have changed very much in terms of the need to understand and manage important diseases, but the research tools available for doing so have changed enormously.  As a kid, I can remember hearing old folks recall the first time they saw a car or an airplane and being incredulous about how much things like that could have changed within a lifetime.  But comparing the technology that can be used for biological research today with that of 30 or 40 years ago is somewhat like comparing a modern car with a Model T Ford.  There’s still a lot of very useful information that can be generated using a low-tech approach, and there’s an unfortunate tendency among some researchers to pay more attention to the new technology that they’re using than to the value of the results that they’re producing.  But there’s no question that creative people are finding ways to use these new tools to understand and manage plant diseases to a degree that would not have been possible a generation ago without them.

What projects are going on in your lab right now?

I’ve always maintained a field program to evaluate various fungicides and spray timings for control of major diseases, and to look at fungicide physical modes of action and the development of pathogen resistance to certain materials.  This past year, we also began a new project focusing on the biology and management of sour rot, which occurs sporadically but can cause major problems when it does.  Much of this work is being conducted by graduate student Megan Hall, in collaboration with Greg Loeb in Entomology (to look at the fruit fly component of the problem), and Wendy McFadden-Smith at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, who has made great strides in better defining the disease and conditions that favor it over the past few years.  We got off to a pretty good start this past season and are excited to see where the research will lead.

How will your research benefit the grape industry?

You can’t grow grapes in a climate like ours without controlling diseases, and you can’t stay in business without doing so efficiently.  Changes in climate, cultivars, industry standards, available fungicides, and economics keep this a moving target.  My colleagues and I are trying to provide information to growers that will help them figure out how to hit it.

Wayne Wilcox is professor and associate chair in the department of plant pathology and plant microbe biology, based at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY.