Thursday, February 1, 2024

Reframing the Concept of Pests: Pests are Thieves

by Steve Elliott

Western IPM Center


The gap between what the non-farming public thinks about pests and what farmers know about pests is a mile wide.


For those working in the public integrated pest management enterprise, that was one of the key findings of a social science research effort designed to create greater public understanding of agriculture in America. Called the Farming and Food Narrative Project, the effort took a deep dive into what experts know about farming and what the public thinks it knows about agriculture. It looked at the prisms through which the public views farming and developed reframing strategies designed to bridge those gaps when communicating to the public about agriculture. (Learn more about the Farming and Food Narrative Project)


And one big issue illuminated by the project is the difference between the way non-farming people see pests and the way farmers see them.


And it makes perfect sense. Most Americans experience pests in a fundamentally different way than farmers do, and recognizing those differences may help us talk about pests and pest management in a more productive way. 


At least, as the communicator for the Western IPM Center, that’s what I’m thinking and trying.


For individuals, pests are a usually an icky, inconvenient nuisance with occasional but limited economic impact. They’re like a stone-chipped windshield – likely to happen eventually, annoying and more expensive than you want, but never a fundamental financial threat. No one is going to dock my paycheck 30 percent if I get ants in my dog food.


Farmers have a completely different relationship with pests.


For farmers, pests are a predictable, inevitable and inescapable existential threat. Growers literally bet the farm on their ability to manage insects, diseases, weeds, nematodes and vertebrate pests – and all their possible combinations, vectors and interactions – successfully and economically over the long term.


And ag journalists and university communicators don’t explain that well. Too often we assume our audiences understand why pests are a problem and don’t explain their impact at all. Or we use phrases like crop damage or yield losses, which don’t clearly spell out the real economic costs those terms imply. And, if we do talk about the costs of pest control and pest damage, we usually put it in terms of growers’ profits which doesn’t connect to consumers and creates a them-vs.-us dynamic.


So, using the reframing principles employed by the Farming and Food Narrative Project, I’m exploring a new way of talking about pests that connects individuals’ and growers’ economic experiences:


Pests are thieves. Pests steal.


When pests destroy crops in the field, they’re stealing from farmers and consumers alike –

and from all the field workers, truck drivers, processors, wholesales and grocers in between. Pests make food less available and more expensive for all of us and we all share that economic loss. We’re all stolen from.


Casting pests in this light creates a common enemy for growers and consumers, connecting our interests. It gives communicators an opening to talk about the diversity and complexity of agricultural pests and the need for diverse and effective and evolving pest-management tactics equal to the challenge. By showing pests are a shared problem, it invests everyone in supporting solutions. 


By talking about pests as thieves, it also creates an opportunity to explain integrated pest management in a more productive way. The food narrative project found the general public thinks of pest control only as chemical pesticides, which is like thinking of theft control only as incarceration. But people do understand there is a lot that can be done to prevent theft and that planning, deterrence and monitoring up front can reduce the need for apprehension and incarceration after the fact.


IPM, then, is pest-theft prevention – deterring, avoiding and monitoring pests to reduce the need for biological, mechanical or chemical suppression. Thinking about it as a description to introduces people to the concept, we could try something like this:


Integrated pest management is the science of pest prevention, monitoring and ecologically conscious control of harmful insects, plant diseases, weeds and other crop-stealing organisms.


Or, more simply:


Pests are thieves and IPM is the science of preventing thieving pests. 



What do you think? Reply in the comments or email me directly at

Monday, January 23, 2023

Supercharge Your Proposal Writing

by Steve Elliott
Western IPM Center

There's a powerful way to become a better grant writer and maximize your chances of successful submissions. In video-game parlance, we'd call it a cheat code and it's simple:

Review other people’s grants.

I recently served as a reviewer for another agency’s grant program and was reminded just how valuable that process is in preparing anyone to write better grants. Not only do you see what works and what doesn’t as a reader, you hear it from other reviewers in the discussions and scoring that follows. 

Based on that recent experience, here are some general (and a few specific) thoughts and suggestions that may be helpful.

Review proposals out of your area of expertise. There are a lot of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that need reviewers, as well as local community foundations and city or county program that solicit competitive grants and need reviewers. When you’re reading proposals in areas you are not an expert in, you quickly see the difference between proposals that explain problems and proposed interventions clearly and those that are muddled or assume reviewers are steeped in the minutia of their field. As a proposal writer, assume that your readers don’t know you, don’t know your previous work, and don’t know anything about the problem you’re trying to address. 

Minimize – or better yet, eliminate – the use of acronyms. I’ve been pushing this particular communication tip for the 10 years I’ve been in the integrated pest management world, so it was quite rewarding to be on a panel where other reviewers independently called out a proposal for the annoyingly unnecessary overuse of acronyms. Do not assume reviewers are familiar with your acronyms. Do not use multiple acronyms in the same sentence (Or paragraph. Or section. Or narrative.) Do not make readers flip back and forth trying to remember what XYZ stands for. Do not include an acronym key. Do not create six- or seven-letter acronyms. We communicate with words. Use them.

Involve end-users up front whenever possible. One of the strengths of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program is that it requires farmers or ranchers to be actively involved in all of its grants. While other programs may not mandate it, reviewers will have a much better sense that a new tool or activity will be meaningful to its eventual end-users if it’s clear they were involved with its conception or design.

Collect your own list of best practices from the proposals you and your fellow reviewers were impressed with. If you found the formatting of a table or timeline exceptionally clear or helpful, make a note for your next proposal. If a font was particulary easy to read (or you encounter one that wasn’t), note that as well. Be inspired by organization, use of links or illustrations, length of the individual elements within a narrative. You’ll always write your own narrative, but that doesn’t mean you can’t adopt organizational, formatting or design elements that were particularly effective.

Invest thought, care and effort to diversity, both in your proposal and in the project. It’s an area of need in our science and an area of focus for funders. If a grant competition asks about activities to increase diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, it’s not sufficient to explain what you’ve previously done or write how your program is “open to all.” Federal agriculture programs and Land-Grant Universities have been open to all for decades and still have diversity, equity and inclusion issues. We need to do better, and reviewers had no trouble distinguishing between proposals that took diversity and inclusion seriously and those that paid it lip service.

Enlist experts in your proposal design process and project, as appropriate. For instance, if your project involves significant new communication activities – producing videos, launching social media campaigns or other broad public outreach – it’s worth engaging a communicator while designing your project and preparing the proposal. Universities and the Regional IPM Centers all have communicators you can consult with. 

A final word about communicators. Communicators focus on audience. We work to deliver the information our audiences need and that we want them to have. As a proposal writer, you are a communicator, providing information your audience needs to make funding recommendations. And the audience you’re communicating to is a tough one, tasked with critically reading, scoring, discussing and defending their evaluation of how well you delivered that information.   

Serve on some review panels and you’ll be better able to gather, organize, format and deliver the information your audience needs to score your proposal highly.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Putting the "I" Back into IPM: Integrating Practices, Disciplines and Viewpoints to Ensure that IPM's Benefits Reach Everyone

Friends of the Western IPM Center,

As we exit the COVID pandemic, I briefly reflect here on what the Center accomplished. The pivot we all made to adjust to pandemic conditions may not be temporary and how we do business may have changed. Strengthening our connection through virtual platforms and other technologies has been an important adaptation.

The Center pivoted to hosting the IPM Hour for more than a year and this effort helped to support the IPM community in the West. As a Center we will continue to integrate lessons learned from the COVID pandemic and apply these lessons to strengthening the IPM network across the immense distances in the West.

As the new Federal Administration settles in, the Center will play an important role in reaching out to educate and inform policy makers and regulators about the utility of integrated pest management. Integrated pest management was born from the idea that sustainable pest control must rely on multiple control tools. Reliance on a single management tool can lead to unintended consequences and disruption of important ecological services.

But there are those that continue to voice the opinion that individual strategies or tactics will meet our conservation or sustainability goals and manage pests effectively. It is crucial for leaders and decision makers to realize that there are no quick fixes or shortcuts. Integrated pest management practitioners understand their systems and weigh the costs and benefits of different management tactics using all of the information available delivered to them by the state Extension services and other public and private agencies and companies. A one-size-fits-all solution doesn't exist, and each practitioner has to decide how to manage their system meeting economic, social, conservation, sustainability and other goals. The beauty of IPM is that it provides a framework so that all of the available tools are considered and integrated to arrive at smart, safe and sustainable pest management solutions.

In this upcoming year, the Center will begin the process of reconnecting with all of the disciplines involved in pest management including weed science, plant pathology, entomology, animal science, forestry and others through in-person professional meetings and other venues. Through in-person and virtual meetings, and through scientific and non-scientific articles, the Center will continue to identify and document the IPM successes in the West. Through this continuing process of documenting successes, we will continue to showcase how IPM successes are widespread and how all of the different communities in the West benefit through the adoption of IPM principles.

I also want to reiterate here the Center's commitment to diversity and inclusion. It is increasingly important that the Center hears from all stakeholders in the West who are affected by pests and pest management. We work with our Advisory and Steering Committees, state IPM coordinators, National IPM Coordinating Committee, Federal IPM Coordinating Committee and others to assure that we hear from as many communities and groups as possible as we identify pest management priorities in the West.

But there are groups and communities that are under-represented and their voices have not been heard loudly enough. I will work with our current committees and stakeholder groups to identify and reach out to those groups and communities that are historically under-represented to assure they have the opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions related to pest management. By assuring that everyone has the opportunity to have a seat at the table, we will increase our chances of identifying all pest management priorities for the West and increase the likelihood that we can address those challenges.

IPM has had significant success in the past and the IPM Centers have played an important role in that success. As director, I am fully committed to the success of the Center and integrated pest management efforts to identify and implement smart, safe and sustainable pest management practices in the West.

Thank you,

Matt Baur

Director, Western IPM Center


Western IPM Center Statement Submitted to NIFA

Integrated pest management, or IPM, is smart, safe and sustainable pest management. IPM is a science-based approach that promotes ecological services and integrates prevention, avoidance, monitoring and suppression for managing pest populations. The practice of IPM minimizes the reliance on pesticides that can harm human and environmental health. In this way, IPM protects all Americans from the harm inflicted by pests and pest management.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that the only thing that is constant in life is change. This statement is highly relevant to pest management.

The scientific disciplines that develop pest management tools and programs must adapt to the changing needs and concerns of increasingly sophisticated stakeholders. Public investment in the development of integrated solutions to pest problems is essential for providing these stakeholders with effective alternatives that align with their personal goals including health, conservation, environmental stewardship, sustainability, economics, aesthetics, social justice and other goals. 

There are industries focused on pest management, but the private sector is focused on providing a limited range of products that align with a limited set of corporate goals. This sector is not able to provide all the solutions necessary for all of NIFA’s stakeholders and our nation’s needs. The work to develop these integrated solutions falls to organizations like Land Grant Colleges and Universities and funding agencies like NIFA.

Pest challenges are also changing and evolving as pests become resistant to pesticides, arrive from overseas or follow changing crop or weather patterns into new areas. So our management of those pests must also adapt. Meeting the ever-changing challenges relies on multi-disciplinary teams to conduct the collaborative research necessary to address the new challenges. Integrated pest management is the connecting link around which these cross-discipline teams coalesce to tackle pest management problems. The Regional IPM Centers are a vital component of that link that connects researchers, educators and Extension personnel to help them develop and deliver these novel solutions to all NIFA stakeholders. IPM practitioners are kept informed of new pest management challenges and on new ways to address these challenges through the Centers’ communication efforts and Extension and education activities funded through NIFA. 


Integrated Pest Management researchers, educators and Extension personnel have also adapted to the changes in the funding landscape. NIFA funding focused on IPM research and extension has been stagnant. So IPM researchers, educators and Extension personnel have sought funding through other NIFA programs such as OREI, SARE and AFRI. The IPM proposals to these other programs have been successful because IPM aligns with the goals of these programs. However, there is increasing concern that the core IPM funding programs needed to support the multi-disciplinary IPM teams may not be sufficient to address an increasing list of problems. 


America’s pest management challenges and societal changes require smart, safe and sustainable solutions. It is imperative that the Crop Protection and Pest Management program, a program dedicated to IPM development, be fully funded at a level that recognizes our growing challenges.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A Q&A with New Western IPM Center Director Amer Fayad

Dr. Amer Fayad

Dr. Amer Fayad joined the Western IPM Center in July as its new director, coming from the IPM Innovation Lab headquartered at Virginia Tech University. This introductory Q&A was recorded in Davis, California and has been minimally edited for clarity and length.

Q: Tell us a little about your background and education.
A: I have a B.S. in agriculture from the American University of Beirut and I was very interested in crop protection so I did my master’s in crop protection, specifically in plant pathology. For my research, I worked on IPM for cucurbit viruses in Lebanon. I went on to do a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech in plant pathology and a post-doc at the University of Florida in citrus viruses.

After that, I spent six years teaching biology, environmental sciences and health and nutrition at Notre Dame University-Louaize in Lebanon and in 2011 I saw an opportunity to join the IPM Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech. I was really interested in going back into research and into the IPM field, so I applied for it. I got the job, moved back to the U.S. and I was involved in managing the project for eight years until I joined the Western IPM Center.
Q : What was the focus of the IPM Innovation Lab?
A: The IPM Innovation Lab is a USAID-funded program (United States Agency for International Development) focused on improving the standards of living of smallholder farmers specifically by helping them protect their crops from pests and diseases. The focus was on using economically sound, environmentally sound and ecologically sound IPM approaches to pest management. We worked to develop IPM tactics and also to find ways to disseminate that knowledge to farmers, to scientists, to the public and the private sectors and to policy makers in the developing countries where we worked.

Another big focus was capacity development for farmers and scientists, especially early career scientists. So we sponsored graduate students and post-docs and we conducted several workshops. We also focused on empowering women to make sure that they had equal access to resources and information about pest management and had a voice in making decisions and being involved in the program design and implementation.

The countries we worked in varied over time, depending on the phase of the project and on USAID and the State Department. Our last phase was focused in East Africa in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania and in Asia we were working in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Q: What was your specific role there?
A: My role as associate director was managing the portfolio of projects – the coordination of the research activities, communication of results and planning for workshops and meetings. Most of it was linking U.S. scientists or partners with the national partners in the countries where we worked and also making the connections and linkages with the students, farmers, NGO partners and policy makers.

Some of my activities as a virologist were conducting workshops that focused on plant virus diseases and the management of those diseases, and representing the IPM Innovation Lab at scientific meetings and meetings with USAID or USAID missions in the host countries.

Q: I imagine you travelled frequently.
A: Yes, yes I did. I miss it, international travel.

Q: What elements of your previous work do you think will be most relevant to your new role at the Western IPM Center?
A: I think what's most relevant is the understanding of what IPM is and my experience working with different stakeholders – people coming from different cultures, different languages and different disciplines. I think the same applies here and I can use my knowledge and experience in working with diverse stakeholders throughout the West.

Q: What attracted you to this position what are you most looking forward to with this job?
A: What attracted me most is that it required a solid background in science and using science-based IPM approaches. I also liked that it presents an opportunity to create linkages between farmers and commodity groups and scientists and regulators. I think sometimes a common language is missing between all of these groups. This is a great opportunity to make those connections, which I hope can advance the mission of the Center.

Also these days, there's a lot of mistrust about pest management so I think there's a great opportunity for the Western IPM Center to educate the public, consumers and regulators about IPM and that IPM can be a safe alternative to chemical pesticides or standard practices some farmers use.

Q: Do you think the public needs to know about IPM?
A: Definitely. I think consumers want safe, healthy, high-quality produce but they’re unaware about agricultural practices and crop production and protection. And I think there's lots of misconceptions about pesticides, and about organic agriculture and biological control.

Unfortunately, the IPM community hasn’t been really vocal. We haven’t done enough to talk about how important IPM is and how safe it can be for the consumers and how it can deliver safe produce at a fair price. The community has struggled, especially with the rise of organic, but we also have to remember that organic doesn't always mean safer and not every consumer can afford to buy organic. And we have to think not just about the U.S., but also about all the billions of people who don't have access to food and resources.

IPM is a really important strategy to help produce enough food to feed the billions of people on the planet, but it's a challenge.

Q: What are your plans for getting started?
A: I think the biggest thing I need to do my first month or so is to get to know all the partners and the stakeholders. The Western region is huge and there are lots of players, from the commodity groups to the IPM coordinators and scientists and Center co-directors. I need to establish a rapport with them. And, especially since the position has been vacant for a while, I’ll need to make an extra effort to get to know all the people and get the discussion going again. It's a lot of people.

Q: What do you think will be the biggest challenges?
A: What we just talked about – getting to know all the players and seeing the areas where we can make the most impact.

I think another big challenge we’re facing is all the changes at USDA NIFA and its move from Washington D.C. to Kansas City. I hope that will not impede our progress and I’ll work to find ways to make sure that the Center is not affected and our work goes forward smoothly.

Q: Did you have similar situations with USAID?
A: Yes. All the time. Yeah, we had budget cuts, budget delays.

Q: So how do you deal with it?
A: You have to make sure that our stories are out. Make sure our legislators are aware of what we're doing. I think the same applies to the Western IPM Center in that we have to make sure that all the people who make decisions are aware of what we do and the importance of what we do and the impact that we can make.

We need to keep telling our story. We have to have the data, have that evidence and then we have to make our case. Science doesn't speak for itself. We have to be the voice for science.

Q: What else do you want people to know about you?
A: Well, I will say that, yes, I'm passionate about the science but I'm also passionate about the people. One of the things that attracted me to this position and my previous position is working with people and connecting with different stakeholders. I'm passionate about people having equal access and equal opportunity to resources, to education, to food and health.

I value diversity and human rights. I've been involved in many activities to promote those principles throughout my career and I hope to continue to find ways to be engaged in making a difference in the lives of my community and the community at large.

I'm passionate about teaching. I miss teaching college students. I had the opportunity to do workshops in my previous job and I hope I will have similar opportunities in this position.

I'm passionate about running and indoor cycling and food, culture and travelling.

Friday, January 4, 2019

To Communicate Better, Start with Audience

by Steve Elliott

A few years ago, at a meeting of the four Regional IPM Centers, a web designer was briefing the group on a new website he was building. The first question someone asked was what colors he planned to use.

I cringed. We hadn’t talked about the purpose of the site and who it would reach and what content we’d post but here we were picking colors.

Unfortunately, at programs and laboratories and companies and districts everywhere, a lot of communication comes about this way. Someone decides they need to be on Twitter or update a brochure or do a podcast (or use blue on a website) without asking the basic questions first. Who is our audience? What do they need? How can we best reach them?

Good communication doesn’t start with hexadecimal color codes or clever Twitter handles. It starts with audience. Here’s a process we use, share and find valuable.

Start with Audience
Who do you reach, and who do you want to reach? Who can you reasonably expect to reach? Then ask what you know about them. Where do they get their information? What formats do they find useful? What stories do they read – or what videos do they watch, podcasts they listen to, etc.?

If you don’t know, ask. Make some phone calls. Send out a three-question survey. Look at your web traffic and newsletter stats. See what people use and value and what they ignore. Look for discrepancies between who you think your audience is and who they really are. (If, for instance, you think your audience is primarily farmers and ranchers and every email address you’ve collected ends in .edu, there’s something wrong.)

Also, recognize your audience isn’t some monolithic entity. Define the audience for your overall communication strategy, but recognize that within that there will be elements you can best reach in different ways. We identify a specific audience for each different communication vehicle we use and look for specific ways to target each group we want to reach.

Know Your Message
Message is the one or two sentence key idea you’re trying to communicate with each piece you publish. It’s the one point or idea or impression you want a reader to remember if they remember nothing else. It should be simple and direct: “We fund grant research.” “We add value to IPM programs.” “We have pest-management answers.” The more clearly you know your message, the more clearly you can communicate it.

(FYI, the message for this blog post is “Start with audience.”)

Have a Purpose
Purpose is the specific thing you’re trying to accomplish with each communication piece. It’s what you want to provide your audience – how to reach your program, what types of grants or services you have available, what you’ve accomplished in the past year. It’ll support your message but go beyond it.

In a perfect world, we’d do all these things first – define and develop the audience, message and purpose – and only then decide on medium, content and design.

Choose the Right Medium
A common place where communication strategies fail is when someone starts with the medium rather than an audience. “We need to be on Twitter,” “We should do an app,” “We have to update these brochures” are all perfectly reasonable statements and all perfectly wrong if that’s not what your audience needs, uses or wants.

Be on Twitter if the people you’re trying to reach are on Twitter (and use Twitter for what you’re doing). Print a brochure or flier if you're trying to reach people who don’t have good Internet access and need hardcopy documents. Shoot video if there’s a specific audience you believe will get your message that way.

The advice from the baseball movie “Field of Dreams” – build it and they will come – doesn’t work for communicators. We have to go where the audience is, not expect them to come to us.

Keep the Content Focused
One of the great things about working through the audience-message-purpose process is not only does it guide you about what to include in a communications piece, it helps you see what you can leave out. And if something doesn’t serve your audience, support your message and further your purpose, leave it out. People are busy. We’re competing for their time so the more clearly, quickly and concisely we can give them the information they need, the better.

Do Design Last
This doesn’t mean design isn’t important, it just means it comes last in the process. And doing it last leads to better design, because then your designer can choose formats, fonts, images, everything to support all the work you’ve already done. The design is aimed at a specific audience, visually reinforces your message and clearly communicates the purpose. It makes for a better, more effective piece.

Finally, Try this Self-Evaluation Exercise
A while back, we developed a survey to see how other programs communicated – what methods they used, what audiences they targeted and how they measured the effectiveness of their efforts. As a survey, it was too long and complex and I’d have been better off just making phone calls.

As a self-evaluation tool, however, it turned out to be really effective. Everyone who took the survey said they were going to change some aspect of their communication strategy as a result. So we edited and shortened and reconceived the survey as a reflective, self-directed evaluation tool; a way to systematically work through all the ways you communicate and see if they’re working as well as they could.

You could do the exercise as a group – a leadership team and communicators – or individually. Save and print your answers at the end because nothing is stored or shared. It can take an hour or maybe longer if there’s a lot to think over and talk about, but communicating well is worth the time. Here’s the link.

But if you’re not keen on doing that, here’s a shortcut: Start with audience.