New entomology Endowed Chair excited about opportunity to help tree fruit industry

When it comes to pests and tree fruit, old problems can become more difficult, while new problems can pop up quickly with devastating consequences. Expanding research to address new challenges takes time, especially when science is often funded by grants.

Portrait photo of Tobin Northfield
Tobin Northfield

Now Washington State University entomologist Tobin Northfield has a new tool to reduce that reaction time: He is WSU’s new Endowed Chair of Tree Fruit Entomology and Integrated Pest Management.

“Emergent pests, diseases, or problems can happen quickly, and it takes time to apply for grants,” said Northfield, who was recently promoted to associate professor in WSU’s Department of Entomology. “We can use the funds from this endowment to adapt quickly to big issues that may impact the tree fruit industry.”

The endowment, funded by Washington tree fruit growers and overseen by the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, is part of a larger gift that will make WSU a globally competitive tree fruit research institution.

“Tobin has been a fantastic help to growers around the state and the entire Pacific Northwest,” said Ines Hanrahan, director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. “He’s worked tirelessly and with great enthusiasm and passion with stakeholders and developed stellar working relationships with many of them. We’re excited that he’ll be the first WSU endowed tree fruit entomologist.”

Northfield, a native of Enumclaw, Wash., earned a PhD in entomology from WSU more than a decade ago. He initially went to college to study dentistry but took an entomology course “on a whim.” He found that he loved helping humans and the food supply while improving environmental conservation and spending time outside.

After earning his doctorate, Northfield was employed at the University of California, Davis, then moved to Australia for five years. There, he studied ecological management of cacao, integrated pest management of bananas, and even scorpions.

Northfield said that varied background has helped him when working to solve complex challenges like Little Cherry/X-disease, which he cites as a recent example of a problem that came out of nowhere and quickly impacted the industry.

“The tree fruit industry funded a lot of research that allowed us to respond quickly,” Northfield said. “We got a better understanding of the problem and beneficial approaches to controlling X-disease. Similarly, in previous years, industry-researcher teamwork allowed rapid adoption of mating disruption for codling moth when key insecticides became unavailable. This endowment will allow us to respond to other new challenges even faster since we don’t have to ask for initial funding.”

Northfield’s experience with the reemergent Little Cherry/X-disease also demonstrated how building relationships in the industry can pay huge dividends in research.

“Working with this team to fight X-disease, working hand in hand with industry, showed me again that the best ideas often come from growers,” he said. “It’s up to us to demonstrate how and why something works so we can help the entire industry.”

Codling moth is a topic Northfield hopes to concentrate more on, using funds from the endowment. The pests cause major problems for apple and pear growers in Washington. And with government funding now coming in for Little Cherry/X-disease, there are more people to focus on that particular outbreak.

“We’re getting a handle on ways to combat X-disease, so I want to start looking at codling moths to see if we can get a better understanding,” he said.

Another benefit of the endowment is ensuring consistency of research staff over time, Northfield said. When relying on grants, which have limited time frames, keeping a talented research team together for more than four or five years can be challenging.

“In the old days, lab technicians could be funded long-term,” Northfield said. “I’m hoping the endowment funds allow us to return to that model, to keep the expertise gained by our team together. I’ve been fortunate to have great people in my lab and the industry has seen the benefits of these talented and intelligent folks.”