Walt Bentley, UC Cooperative Extension advisor, retires after 35 years
Walter Bentley, UC Cooperative Extension advisor, transferred to Kearney in 1994 after 17 years as a UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Kern County, specializing in entomology. The integrated pest management team – with advisors representing the core pest management disciplines of entomology, nematology, weed science and plant pathology – was formed in response to concern about the effect of pesticides on food safety, the environment and farmworker safety.
Bentley collaborated with IPM and commodity-specific UC Cooperative Extension advisors and specialists and farmers to develop IPM approaches and alternative control strategies that have reduced the use of the highest risk insecticides (carbamates and organophosphates) in California by 80 percent to 90 percent in almonds, grapes and tree fruit since 1995.
Bentley’s career success is demonstrated by the numerous awards he has received in the past year. A group of world IPM leaders presented Bentley with its Lifetime Achievement Award March 27 at the 7th International IPM Symposium in Memphis, Tenn. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the California Association of Applied IPM Ecologists in February. In October 2011, Bentley received the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Distinguished Service Award for Outstanding Extension.
Bentley grew up in San Joaquin County on his family’s cherry, walnut and peach farm in Linden. He began laboring in the orchards as a young boy, but the hard work didn’t deter him from pursuing a career in agriculture.
“Growing up on a farm is probably the best life a youngster can have,” Bentley said. “But I can’t say that it was easy for my parents. It was a struggle for them to raise a family and depend solely on income from the farm.”
Bentley earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and biology in 1969 at Fresno State University, and then spent two years in the U.S. Army working on tracing mosquito movement in the 4th Army area of Texas and Oklahoma and later in Utah. He earned a master’s degree in entomology in 1974 at Colorado State University. Bentley worked in biological pest control for the Colorado Department of Agriculture before returning to his native California for the UC Cooperative Extension position in Bakersfield.
“I had heard many rumors about how tough Bakersfield was in terms of weather and environment. Within two weeks of starting the job, there was a huge dust and wind storm in the area and the first summer we had 30 days in a row with the temperature 100 degrees or higher,” Bentley said. “But I came to enjoy Bakersfield.”
As the UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Kern County, Bentley worked with his colleagues to develop an IPM program for almonds, addressing primarily problems with spider mites, navel orange worms and ants. Also working with colleagues, he developed an IPM program for potatoes, emphasizing careful monitoring for potato tuber moth and postponing pesticide treatment until the pest reached a level at which economic damage occurs.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, however, was the relationship he cultivated with growers and pest control advisers in Kern County. In particular, Bentley worked closely with pioneer Bakersfield apple grower Lewis Sherrill to combat the problem of codling moth in apples. Sherrill started his own farm at age 76 and continued farming until he was nearly 100 years old.
“Apple farmers in Kern County were relying on information from Washington state, where a large part of the U.S. apple industry is located,” Bentley said. “But in Washington, codling moth only produces two generations in the summer. In Kern County, we had four. Lou and I analyzed codling moth flight dynamics, integration of materials and we began experimenting with mating disruption.”
At Kearney, Bentley continued his work on apples and almonds, plus he began to work extensively in grapes. Mealybug management in grapes, he said, became the most important and impactful part of his job. Bentley also played a role in developing a management plan to control katydid damage in peaches and helped farmers use mating disruption against oriental fruit moth in peaches.
“In my generation as an entomologist, a major breakthrough was the development and use of pheromones for ag pest monitoring and management,” Bentley said. “We found ways to use pests’ own biology against them.”
During his 36-year career, Bentley authored 65 chapters or sections in pest management manuals and 75 peer-reviewed articles. In addition, he wrote more than 250 articles for trade journals and newspapers.
"Mr. Bentley's career represents the best UCCE's faculty has to offer, “ said his IPM colleague, Pete Goodell, UC Cooperative Extension advisor based at Kearney. “Unselfish service, loyalty to his peers and clientele, intellectual honesty, dedication to the mission of UCCE and a genuine love for his work.”
Bentley credits the success of his program to the UC Cooperative Extension research and education continuum, which is designed to foster communication and collaboration from campus laboratories to farm fields and back again.
“I think this is one of the best educational programs in the world,” Bentley said. “We take information from UC campuses to the farms. And those of us who work with farmers bring first-hand experiences back to the campus and work with scientists to develop solutions.”
Bentley’s personal interest in insects, which got him into his line of work, will carry through into his retirement. One of his goals, he said, is building a teaching collection of insects, spiders, mites and other arthropods at Kearney. He has already acquired some of the equipment needed to house the collection, and plans to maintain some samples on pinned displays and others in live colonies. The collection will be a learning tool for farmers, pest control advisers, students and interns.
“Knowing what’s out there is an important part of understanding entomological science,” Bentley said.
Insects are also a part of his favorite pastime, fly fishing. Bentley said retirement will give him more time to spend on local rivers catching (and releasing) trout with his hand-tied flies. Bentley speaks passionately about the joy of fly fishing.
“There’s a pulse that runs through you,” Bentley said. “It feels like you’re a child on Christmas every time the fish hits the fly. It’s such a thrill.”