Harold Coble, 2013 Friends of IPM Award Winner
Lifetime Achievement

Harold CobleDr. Harold Coble first realized the need for economic thresholds in weeds when he was explaining the use of Basagran to a group of soybean growers.

“I told them how to use it, how much to use, and when they would need to use it,” Coble says.

Then one grower in the back of the room raised his hand and asked, “So when do we use this?”

Slightly annoyed, Coble started explaining the process again when the grower said:

“No. I mean when do I have enough weeds in my field to be able to afford this product?”

At that time there were no economic thresholds for weeds, and Coble had no answer for him. However, the question intrigued him so much that he began a quest to find the answer to the grower’s question, not just for that product, but also for products labeled for weeds in soybeans. In 1976, he became involved in the Adkisson project, a USDA-funded Research and Extension project designed to test, refine and evaluate ways to reduce the use of pesticides while still maintaining crop quality and yield. During the first of two projects, Coble delivered research results about IPM to farmers. In 1985, the project culminated with an article on weed control in agricultural systems.

Three years later, Coble and fellow NCSU scientist Gail Wilkerson collaborated on a weed control decision support system, named HERB. HERB was the first online system that allowed growers to input a set of variables and get a control recommendation in return. The tool became so popular that other Extension specialists adapted it for their states.

Coble’s career took another turn during a meeting in the early 1990s between representatives of the NC State Weed Science faculty and BASF. As Centers for Excellence were becoming more prominent, a BASF representative asked if the University could develop a Center of Excellence for Weed Science. Coble became the likely candidate to research the idea, so he spoke to Ron Kuhr, then director of research for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NCSU. Rather than simply giving a green light, Kuhr encouraged Coble to make the Center multi-disciplinary and instead create a Center for Integrated Pest Management.

With a plan in mind, Coble had just one more daunting task: to find money to start the Center. The National Science Foundation sometimes granted start-up money to scientific centers, but it was very particular about the mission of the center. Most of the centers that had received money focused on the hard sciences, like engineering or food science. So when Coble broached the idea with the director of the NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers program he wasn’t surprised to hear that IPM did not fit in NSF’s model.

Fortunately for Coble, USDA was beginning to focus more attention on IPM that year, so within a few days, that director called Coble back to accept his proposal. With $50,000 start-up money from the NSF, Coble traveled to several states, visiting private companies and signed up six companies as the Center’s first sponsors, at $50,000 each. The new Center for IPM would support IPM research on the national level.

Once the Center was up and running, Coble agreed to manage it for a year. A year and a half later, College administration convinced entomologist Dr. Ron Stinner to be the new director, and Coble stepped down and resumed his duties as a weed scientist.

It wasn’t long, however, before Coble received another leadership offer, this time from the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) to be the national IPM Coordinator. As national IPM Coordinator, Coble chaired the USDA IPM Coordinating Committee (which eventually became the Federal IPM Coordinating Committee) and met with scientists from USDA and other agencies to try to coordinate IPM efforts among agencies. Keith Pitts, Special Assistant to the Secretary on Domestic Policy, suggested putting together a proposal for IPM grants, to garner more support for IPM. Coble wrote up concept papers for two new grants: Crops and Risk and the Risk Avoidance Mitigation Program. Both received funding and became long-term programs that would help researchers find new pest management tools to replace chemical pesticides that had been cancelled or were beginning to lose effectiveness due to resistance.

Shortly after the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, USDA developed an IPM initiative, promising that by the year 2000, 75 percent of U.S. cropland would be farmed using IPM. Concerned that the projection may have been too optimistic, USDA directors asked Coble to explain how the agency would measure the number of acres farmed using IPM. So Coble came up with a definition of the steps needed for effective IPM: Prevention, Avoidance, Mitigation and Suppression (PAMS). Farmers had to use three of the four tactics to qualify as an IPM implementer. A subsequent survey revealed that 74 percent of acres were farmed under IPM based on the PAMS definition.

However, the General Accounting Office was not convinced. In 1998, requested by Congress, they did their own study and published a report that criticized both the federal coordination as well as the national implementation of IPM. Coble would later be asked to respond to the report.

Coble’s next project was to develop a concept about how to coordinate IPM efforts across the country. Some USDA staff suggested developing a model of IPM Centers, based on the North Carolina Center for IPM. Coble proposed creating 12 IPM Centers, each in one of EPA’s regions, at the tune of $36 million. In the year 2000, CSREES decided to repurpose $4 million in funding for the National Pesticide Impact Assessment Program into four regional IPM Centers, at Pennsylvania State University, Michigan State University, the University of Florida and the University of California at Davis.

“The reality of the Centers is much better than the idea ever was,” says Coble. “They have evolved and really taken on the vision of what we thought the Centers should be.”

In 1999, Coble left Washington and returned to NC State. Shortly after he had moved his furniture from his townhouse in Alexandria back to his home in Raleigh, the director of the USDA Office of Pest Management Policy (OPMP) called to offer him a job with the agency. Coble refused to move back to DC but said he would take the job if he could remain in Raleigh. The Secretary of Agriculture agreed to his terms.

Coble’s first assignment was to write a letter responding to the report that resulted from the GAO’s IPM evaluation in 1998. As he wrote the letter, explaining that IPM needed to be a coordinated effort, he realized that the agency needed a group that would coordinate IPM efforts across all government agencies and a “roadmap” defining the purposes of IPM and the areas that it covered. The Federal IPM Coordinating Committee (FIPMCC), which began in 2004, approved the IPM Roadmap soon after they convened, a document which is still frequently cited by researchers and project directors and is used as a measure to evaluate grant proposals.

As Coble prepares to retire in January 2014, he leaves behind a legacy of grant programs, IPM definitions, an international Center for IPM and four regional IPM Centers that still support IPM research and extension in the country. His weed control decision support system is used across the country and taught in university IPM courses as a weed IPM tool. Researchers and commodity groups are fighting to restore funding to the Crops at Risk and Risk Avoidance Mitigation programs, both of which were defunded in 2011.

“If I can get people together and promote collaboration, that’s what I want,” says Coble. “I’ve learned the value of working across agencies and with people with different skill sets. You should never surround yourself with people that have your skill sets. You need someone to throw darts at what you think.”