Spudwomen 2016: Eugenia Banks
When colleagues and farmers were asked to describe Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) potato specialist Eugenia Banks, two words stood out: dedicated and passionate. In fact, one Norfolk County potato producer, Joe Lach, said that Banks has probably had more of an effect on the potato industry worldwide than any other person.”
Banks started working for OMAF back in 1990, when it was known as the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). As she embarked on her new career path she set out a number of goals. Specifically, she wanted to learn new skills that would help Ontario farmers be more successful on the farm.
Banks also wanted to get to know Ontario potato producers, their needs and their challenges. Her hope was to open the lines of communication, which would help her better identify the research priorities and production goals of Ontario’s potato producers.
“From the beginning, it was clear to me that potato growers’ production concerns would be my concerns and their research priorities would be my priorities,” she said.
Colorado potato beetle
When Banks first started at OMAFRA in 1990, Ontario was hit hard by Colorado potato beetle. Potato farmer Joe Lach remembers that at that time, none of the insecticides available worked. He also remembers how hard Banks worked to find a solution.
“Eugenia would come out and do 20 different dip tests to try and find a chemical or combination of chemicals to try and kill them,” he said. “The beetles had become resistant to everything, so we built trenches lined with plastic around the fields so that the beetles would fall in and not be able to crawl out.”
Unfortunately, the trenches were only effective early in the season. Banks even tried using propane flamers and vacuums, but since they caused crop damage their use was limited.
By 1994, the beetle was completely out of control. The only hope to protect the next year’s crop was the emergency registration of Admire, a new class of insecticide that had provided excellent control in U.S.-based trials.
“The chances of getting emergency registration were very low, but Admire was to be registered in the U.S. in 1995, so there was some hope,” Banks said. “I encouraged the growers to apply for emergency registration and provided the supporting data.”
Other provinces applied with Ontario, and six months later Admire was approved. The insecticide was so effective that Colorado potato beetle has been all but eradicated in Ontario.
Disease and pest management
During her 25 years at OMAF, Banks played an integral role in the development and implementation of several management programs. In 1995, when a new, aggressive strain of late blight hit North America, Banks developed a strategy for Ontario growers. Every year since, she has updated that strategy, helping growers manage the disease.
Late blight wasn’t the only disease that surfaced over the years. Common scab also challenged farmers, and recommended management practices did not provide consistent control.
“I evaluated many potential biocontrol methods in a heavily infested research plot in the Aliston area, but none of them reduced the incidence of common scab,” Banks said. “Only the use of resistant varieties was a reliable control strategy.”
Some of those resistant varieties came out of Europe, but they wouldn’t have been available if it hadn’t have been for Banks’ hard work. When plant breeders’ rights opened the market to new European varieties, those varieties needed testing. That’s where Banks came in.
“I conducted on-farm variety trials in three areas of the province for 18 years,” Banks said. “These variety trials were extremely successful; they provided information on the performance of European varieties under Ontario conditions.
“In addition to evaluating European varieties for scab susceptibility/tolerance, I had a collaborative common scab research project for eight years with the potato breeding program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” she said. “I evaluated hundreds of clones from Wisconsin, and several clones and varieties with good resistance to scab were identified.”
In 2007, Banks organized the first North American Common Scab Conference. The conference brought together scientists from around the world. Its 200 attendees included researchers, Extension personnel and potato producers.
During the course of her work with growers in the fields, Banks recognized a need for a potato guide. Today, the Potato Field Guide is considered an essential tool for growers. The guide helps growers identify insects, diseases and other common physiological problems.
“This is probably the best book of potato disease photos and symptom descriptions ever published,” said Gary Secor, a plant pathologist at North Dakota State University. “It has an amazing collection of beautiful photos with grower-friendly descriptions. It was wildly successful and popular, and so many copies were eagerly ordered that OMAFRA ran out of the book.”
By 1998, Banks had also implemented a robust integrated pest management (IPM) program for Ontario. Its development involved evaluating economic thresholds for all important potato insects, determining insect and disease occurrence in the province and training students on how to monitor fields and identify potato pests. Banks also produced an IPM manual, fact sheets and articles on pest management and other production challenges.
Retired but not quitting
In December 2015, much to the sadness of her colleagues and friends in the industry, Eugenia Banks retired from OMAF.
“The good news is that I will continue working closely with Ontario potato growers,” she said in a recent email. “I will continue doing the same research I was doing when working for OMAF. It will be business as usual.”
In fact, Banks shows no signs of slowing. In the future, she plans to continue her research on common scab and hopes to find alternative, sustainable management practices that reduce its occurrence. Finally, she said she would like to organize the Second North American Scab Conference to share with others all that she has learned.
To Banks, working with growers has been her favorite part of the job.
“I enjoy – more than anything – working with Ontario potato growers,” she said. “They are knowledgeable, innovative and resilient. It is a pleasure to work with them.”