Careers in Scouting Tomato Fields
Q: What kind of background and what kind of training do I need to get a job scouting tomatoes?
A: Many of the people scouting tomatoes have a four year degree in an agricultural or biological science. There are obvious advantages to such formal preparation in dealing with the biological systems encountered in commercial vegetable fields. However, such preparation is not absolutely necessary. The most important point is that the scout be a conscientious, hard-working individual who constantly seeks to upgrade his/her level of knowledge and skill. Interested persons should check with local county agents for information on scout training schools given by university personnel. These schools can provide valuable introductory information on tomato IPM. The best training available is to work with an experienced scout for about six weeks, and assume increasing responsibility.
Q: How are financial aspects of the scouting business usually handled?
A: Most of the scouting of high cash-value vegetable crops is done through contractual arrangements between individual growers and pest scouting companies. A fee for twice-a-week scouting is agreed upon by the two parties, and growers issue checks directly to the company. So far, these IPM scouting companies have done very well in recruiting grower clients.
Q: How intensively do I have to scout the tomato fields?
A: Statistical analysis of several years' data from the pilot tomato programs in the Homestead and Bradenton areas indicates that a minimum of one sample per 2.5 acres is needed to make reasonable estimates of the population of pests in fields. If fields are less than 20 acres, even more intensive sampling is strongly recommended. Do not cut corners on sampling. If growers express concern about the per acre fees you must charge for such intensive sampling, tell them that you simply can't do their high cash-value crop justice with less work. On field crops such us soybeans and corn, less intensive sampling and, hence, lower per acre fees are possible because the per acre value of the crops is less. The potential value and very low thresholds for pests on freshmarket tomatoes dictate intensive sampling and relatively high scouting costs for this crop.
Q: Do I make specific recommendations to the grower on control of pests that I find at or near thresholds?
A: No! Under no circumstances should you make specific control recommendations! Due to the present lack of a certification program for scouts and consultants, extreme caution is urged in making specific control recommendations because of potential legal liability. The farm manager makes the final decision whether to treat and which chemical, rate, and application interval should be used. If he knows the thresholds recommended by the Extension Service, he will be able to interpret your counts for treatment decision. If he has questions about interpretation of the scouting data, he can contact his county agent or the state specialist. Your primary job is to walk your clients' fields and report on the pest condition. The averages you provide on the grower report sheet can be of extreme benefit to him. Write down any additional observations under comments. Most growers like to talk to their scout in person, so try to arrange a regular visit with your client each week. Besides, this personal contact can be one of the most rewarding parts or your job.
Q: What kind of equipment should I have to do an adequate job of scouting a tomato field?
A: The following items will be of great assistance in getting the job done:
- at least a 10x hand lens
- a good, sharp pocket knife
- plastic bags for plant samples
- small, screw-cap vials for insect samples filled with 70% isopropyl alcohol (common rubbing alcohol)
- clipboard with pest recording sheets and grower report sheets
- pens and pencils
- hat and sunscreen
- drinking water
- good working shoes, socks, and long slacks to minimize skin contact with plants that have pesticide residues on them
- first aid kit
Q: Is the work physically demanding?
A: In many respects, it is. There is a great deal of walking involved (up to 10 miles per day in the height of the vegetable season). In many fields a great deal of bending and stooping is done to make accurate counts. However, most experienced scouts comment on the excellent physical conditioning benefits of this activity.
Q: Are the pesticide residues dangerous?
A: All pesticides are poisons and must be treated with respect. However, if proper precautions are taken, risk can be greatly minimized. Observe the re-entry requirements - that is, the minimum time between application of a given pesticide and the time when fields can be entered safely. Be familiar with the new Worker Protection Standards. Check with your county agent or a state extension specialist for specifics on re-entry regulations for various chemicals.
The re-entry question means you will have to be aware of the grower's spray practices. Always check with him or one of his responsible employees to see if it is safe to enter the tomato field. It is a good idea to have your cholinesterase level (a measure of effect of exposure to certain insecticides) checked by periodic blood tests during your working season. You may want to check locally on arrangements for cholinesterase monitoring. If you should ever encounter the unlikely circumstance of possible pesticide poisoning, contact your local poison control center for information and treatment. You will greatly facilitate their decision-making if you have a label for the particular, suspected pesticide. Poison control information centers in Florida are listed in Appendix 3.