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NYS IPM 2001
Excellence-in-IPM Award Winners:
Tom Zitter

Vegetable Disease Expert Tom Zitter Wins IPM Award

Tom Zitter
Tom Zitter, a man outstanding in his field,
checking for cucurbit diseases in Steuben County.

Geneva, NY- There won't be any throwing of rotten tomatoes when Thomas Zitter receives the 2001 Excellence in IPM Award at the New York State Vegetable Growers Conference in Liverpool on February 13. The Cornell professor of plant pathology is too popular for that---and his life has been dedicated to making rotten vegetables a thing of the past.

For 33 years Zitter has been studying diseases of fresh-market tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, and other vegetables, finding solutions to the diseases that afflict them. For instance, he’s helped tomato growers minimize fungicide sprays but maintain yields and quality by using disease forecasting systems, improved sprayers, and alternatives to chemical pesticides, such as bicarbonates and mineral oils.

Zitter demonstrated bacterial wilt as a new concern for growers of pumpkins and summer squash and has educated them about the disease since 1998. He also showed the potential of a biological product known as "Harpin" to protect certain vegetables against disease, and in some cases, to increase yields. "There isn't a season that goes by that I don't learn something that can be applied in future research---some little kernel of information," explained Zitter. "We have to be holistic and integrative in our approach."

From 1984 to 1992, Zitter helped the NYS IPM Program to grow by chairing the Vegetable IPM Commodity Committee and serving on the program's Operating Committee. He's the author of 30 Cornell disease fact sheets and bulletins, he edited the Compendium of Cucurbit Diseases and the Compendium of Tomato Diseases (both by APS Press), and was senior editor for the New York Cucurbit IPM Scouting Procedures.

Curt Petzoldt, vegetable IPM coordinator for the NYS IPM Program, has worked with Zitter since the mid-80s. "Diagnosis is critical for IPM," said Petzoldt, "and Tom's the king of diagnosis at Cornell---the one everybody looks to regarding vegetable diseases."

Carrying statewide responsibilities for extension and research, Zitter collaborates with Extension educators, growers, and scientists to determine which biological agents, resistant varieties, and other controls are effective. He also serves as a resident backup for Cornell's Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab.

Extension educator Carol MacNeil has worked with Zitter since he came to Cornell in 1979. "I don't know what we'd do without him," she said. "He's a tremendous resource, and so responsive to answering the very practical questions that growers have about diseases in crops."

Zitter works with dozens of growers across the state, but last summer he tackled a unique problem with John Hand, owner of Hand Melon Farm in Greenwich, NY. Because of a persistent soilborne fungus, Hand was unable to get his favorite varieties of melons to thrive. Once planted, they'd wither and die. Resistant varieties didn't offer comparable flavor or sweetness.

Zitter and his technician, Jessica Drennan, grafted the leafy stems of the favored melons onto disease-resistant rootstocks, secured them with little hair barrettes, then transplanted them into the field. The results? Four to five healthy fruit per plant. "It was spectacular," admits Zitter. "We're going to do it again this year." Hand is a believer, too. "Whenever I've needed assistance in diagnosing problems and deciding on a course of action," he said, "Tom Zitter has been there."

Abby Seaman and John Mishanec, Extension educators for the New York State IPM Program, regularly seek Zitter's advice with demonstration projects on growers' fields. "The quality about Tom that really stands out for me," said Seaman, "is how much I learn every time I have the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the field with him. Field plant pathologists like Tom are becoming an endangered species, but we in the field would be lost without them."

"Tom's unique at Cornell," said Mishanec. "He's very willing to come out into the field and is always there to give information. The bottom line is that he wants to help the grower."

That's one reason why two years ago Zitter, with Cornell plant pathologist Meg McGrath and Dawn Dailey O'Brien, released "Vegetable MD Online," a free, internet diagnostic site for vegetable growers. Access it, and you'll find more than 600 slides and information on the vegetables grown in New York and their major diseases, including a new section on weed hosts for vegetable viruses. In 2001 the site was accessed more than 8,000 times a month.

"I decided to put as much of my knowledge as possible on the web," said Zitter, "and we've tried to make it one-stop shopping." Zitter said developing this site gave him a creative thrill. "You can get caught up in your science," said Zitter. "It's great to have refereed publications, but when it's all said and done, growers really want the information right at hand. That's where Cooperative Extension should be."

Professor Gary Bergstrom, a colleague of Zitter's who nominated him for the award, said, "I'm pleased that he's getting recognized. Tom's an exemplary IPM educator. He embodies the values of the IPM Program and his recommendations are actually implemented by growers."

Zitter sums it up a bit differently: "That's what agriculture is all about; it's the people who make the difference."

Written by Carrie Koplinka-Loehr