UCCE pear expert Rachel Elkins retires from 33-year career
Rachel Elkins, UC Cooperative Extension pomology farm advisor for Lake and Mendocino counties, plans to retire from UC July 1 after 36 years, 33 years in her current position.
“Rachel has been invaluable to the pear industry in Mendocino and Lake counties,” said Bob McClain, California Pear Advisory Board's field and research director.
The Richmond native's first UC job was as a typist at UC Berkeley. Elkins was introduced to UC Agriculture and Natural Resources after earning a bachelor's degree in international studies at University of the Pacific and bachelor's degree in agricultural pest management at UC Berkeley, then landing an internship with UCCE integrated pest management advisor Bill Barnett in Fresno County in 1982. After earning two master's degrees, in pomology and plant protection and pest management at UC Davis, Elkins joined UC Cooperative Extension as a farm advisor intern in 1986 and was hired as a farm advisor in Lake and Mendocino counties in 1987.
She co-edited and co-authored the 2007 UC Pear Production and Handling Manual, 1999 UC Integrated Pest Management for Apple and Pear, and UC IPM Pear Pest Management Guidelines. Her most recent co-authored article on predatory phytoseiid mites, detailing work completed in 2008 was just published in California Agriculture journal.
Elkins is well-known for her research to control codling moth populations by interfering with the insect's sex life instead of using insecticides. In 1996, she worked with UC Riverside researcher Harry Shorey to introduce the pheromone ‘puffer,' fashioned after the devices in public restrooms that intermittently emit a fragrance. Releasing pheromones confuses male moths seeking mates. The method proved successful and ideal in large-scale management because as acreage increases the number of units needed per acre decreases. As a result, organophosphate insecticide use for codling moth control in many pear orchards has almost entirely ceased.
“She was instrumental in developing pheromone puffers for codling moth control,” McClain said, noting that pheromones distributed in orchards on plastic ties were hung by hand 200 per acre. “With the puffer, you needed two per acre, which saved on labor costs.”
A 2003 UC cost study showed that the pheromone puffers saved growers $9 per ton or nearly $200 per acre, based on 20 tons per acre. The cost savings came from reduced insecticide use – due to fewer outbreaks of secondary pests such as mites and pear psylla – and less need to operate spray equipment, which was becoming increasingly expensive.
The California Department of Pesticide Regulation honored the pheromone puffer project with its 2000 IPM Innovator Award. The puffer is now used on nearly all the pear acreage in Lake County. This success in pears led to its use in apple and walnut orchards.
“The most gratifying part of the puffers' success is that I put myself out of the codling moth control business and was able to devote more time to horticulture,” she said. “For example, developing modern orchard systems amenable to mechanization, finding alternatives to antibiotics for fire blight control, and joining multistate efforts toward breeding size-controlling rootstocks.”
In 2002, Elkins was named Agriculture Person of the Year by the Lake County Farm Bureau.
Although pears are her specialty, she has worked with growers on more than 25 fruit and nut crops, mainly walnuts, but also apples, kiwifruit, olives and wine grapes.
“My walnut research program has greatly increased in the past decade as higher prices and organic markets have led to new Lake County plantings,” she said. “I established four long-term rootstock trials in 2011-2012, which are providing local growers with important data to decide whether to replace seedling Paradox with newer clonal selections.”
In 2015, she received the American Society for Horticultural Science award for Outstanding Extension Education Materials for producing the video “Budding, Grafting and Planting Walnut Trees in the Field,” a labor of love honoring renowned Lake County nurseryman Alex Suchan.
She has also covered environmental horticulture and, in 1993, started the UC Master Gardeners Program in Lake County, which is still going strong today.
In addition to her research, Elkins has served as UCCE director in Lake County, from 2002 to 2006 and again from 2018 to the present, maintaining excellent relationships with local government officials and partnering with county departments.
Elkins has been granted emeritus status by UC ANR and will continue ongoing research trials. She will return part-time funded by the California Pear Advisory Board and Pear Pest Management Research Fund to continue assisting the statewide pear industry, including as UC ANR commodity liaison.
“I am very glad to work part-time doing pure farm advisor work, which is what I love and why I entered this profession,” Elkins said.