Dale-Ila Riggs, president of the New York Berry Growers Association, knew well the danger when SWD (aka spotted wing drosophila) blew into New York in 2012. This tiny new pest ravished millions of dollars worth of raspberries and blueberries. Now, for her leadership and resolve on behalf of an industry worth $15 million and growing, Riggs has received an Excellence in IPM award from the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYS IPM) at Cornell University.

As a former Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) educator and professional IPM scout who monitored dozens of vegetable and berry farms for pests as well as the beneficial insects that help keep pests in line — not to mention her experience on the 240-acre berry and vegetable farm she and her husband run — Riggs has decades of practical knowledge under her belt. But with a formidable pest as destructive as SWD, dealing with it takes relentless advocacy and careful research. 

So bad was the devastation SWD wreaked that many growers dug out entire plantings of late-bearing berry crops. But Riggs dug in. “Dale-Ila spent countless hours speaking to policy makers, grower groups, and invasive species partner groups,” says Laura McDermott, a vegetable specialist with CCE. “She has pushed the problem to the forefront and over the past three years gained $1.3 million in funding for research across the state.”

For Riggs, closest to home was the research she did on her own farm with Greg Loeb, a Cornell entomology research specialist with expertise in biological control and IPM. Their approach: to see if a special fine-mesh netting could keep this barely visible pest away from her blueberries, yet allow access for harvesting the crop — and compare it to two other approaches.

“Over two years we achieved nearly zero levels of infestation under exclusion netting without using any insecticides,” said Loeb. In fact, on berries grown without netting and sprayed as often as four times, the crop fared worse. The exclusion netting, on the other hand, has worked so well for her blueberries that Riggs is working with the Quebec-based company manufacturing the netting to broker it to all growers under threat of SWD. Given that per capita consumption of blueberries is up 411 percent since 2000, growers have an unmistakable incentive to keep their crops healthy and productive.

“Dale-Ila does all the key things essential for successful IPM,” said Juliet Carroll, NYS IPM coordinator for fruit crops. “When it comes to the well-being of her farm — indeed, of farms throughout New York and the Northeast — Dale-Ila is a tireless advocate for solid science and sound IPM solutions to vexing problems, new or old.”

Riggs received her award on January 21 at the 2016 Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo in Syracuse, NY.