A Day in the Life of MDARD staff

Office of Performance and Transformation's Communication Representative Monica Drake follows different State of Michigan employees throughout the year.

Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) employees work to keep all living things across the state healthy – whether its humans, animals, or plants.

“What we do greatly affects and impacts animals and people,” said Megan Sprague, Animal Industry Division Communications Representative. “We’re here to help – not make producers and farmers do things that are pointless. There’s a reason. We’re trying to help control and eradicate disease.”

This month, the Office of Performance and Transformation got to experience what it’s like working for the Animal Industry, the Laboratory, and the Pesticide and Plant Pest Management Divisions of MDARD.

Laboratory Division

Frank Barretta is the Quality Assurance Officer overseeing the pesticide section at the Geagley Laboratory in East Lansing. His job is to ensure that the lab operations within the Pesticide Section satisfy International Organization for Standardization (ISO) requirements and that the data produced within the section is acceptable for use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“Pesticides are effective in treating mold, fungus, insects, weeds, etc. They serve a purpose and can benefit the user, but when they’re applied incorrectly, that’s when we begin to see issues,” said Barretta, who earned his Master of Science degree in Genetics from Clemson University.

When someone suspects that a farmer has misused a pesticide – maybe using the wrong concentration or spraying on a windy day – they should contact MDARD. An inspector will be sent to the suspected site, collect samples, and transport them to the lab. Once the samples have been screened by the lab staff, Barretta will review the data prior to submitting the results to the Pesticide and Plant Pest Management (PPPM) Division.  It is PPPM’s responsibility to determine if and what enforcement – a fine, removing the farmer’s application, etc.- should be taken.

One example Barretta gave of a pesticide that was used incorrectly was at a greenhouse that used the same pesticide on their flowers and their produce.

“The pesticide was appropriate for ornamental use but it’s not something that you would use on a plant that was going to be consumed. The state sent investigators to the site to collect samples, and based on the results, a substantial amount of produce that would have gone to market for sale had to be destroyed,” he said.

“Our responsibility working in the public sector is to ensure public safety. How is the consumer supposed to know what is safe for consumption based on how a fruit or vegetable looks?”

The Pesticide Section of the lab also participates in USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP), testing different types of produce for pesticide residues from samples collected all over the continental United States. Currently, the staff is testing kiwis and canned peaches. These studies show how different fruits or vegetables retain pesticide residues – like cherries, for instance, absorb more pesticides because its skin is thinner than a pineapple or an orange. The results of these studies are used to determine thresholds for safe consumption and recommendations for food restrictions for pregnant women, senior citizens, or infants based on a risk assessment algorithm performed by the EPA. 

“Usually, pesticide residues found on the surface of your produce can be washed away, which is why the USDA recommends washing your produce. I was never good about that until I started working here and got to see the data first hand. It’s something that I share with all of my friends and family now; washing your produce is really important,” said Barretta.

“For instance, with grapes, during packaging, a chemical is sprayed on them to prevent moisture within the bag so they won’t mold if a grape or two bursts during shipment. The chemical is approved by the USDA because its assumed that people will wash them before consumption. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought grapes from the grocery store and ate them directly out of the bag as I was driving home.”

Barretta said one of the things he enjoys most about his job is that it helps keep people safe.

“I have a couple little ones at home. We eat tons of berries and, to know that part of my job is to promote safe fruit and vegetable consumption for them, that’s rewarding,” he said.

Animal Industry Division

In the Animal Industry Division (AID), Megan Sprague said, “We protect, regulate, and promote animal health – everything from cats and dogs to deer, cattle, and horses. Anyone who owns, works with, or comes in contact with animals – we will probably interact with them.”

Sprague works with AID veterinarians to communicate animal health messages to producers, pet owners, stakeholders, etc. – whether it’s in regard to common diseases, proper identification, or changing laws.

One requirement Sprague says many people aren’t aware of is that sometimes health papers are required for moving livestock and pets into (or out of) the state.

“Health papers are like visas for animals,” she said. “If you bring certain types of animals into the state, they need to meet certain requirements. We promote this message and protect animals in Michigan by making sure that animals that come into our state are healthy.”

Sprague says that outreach to animal owners and veterinarians plays a key role in helping people understand state laws and animal health issues. She works with Michigan veterinarians, who are frontline partners in animal disease, to make sure they have the information they need to help animal owners. AID’s primary communication tool for veterinarians is a bi-monthly e-newsletter that goes out to more than 6,000 veterinary professionals across the state.

One environmental problem that will be featured in the next newsletter is harmful algal blooms – which occurs when colonies of algae in waterways grow out of control and, under the right conditions, can produce toxins and spread through inland lakes during the summer.

“Sometimes people will take their dog swimming in a lake and, when the dog comes out of the water, it gets sick,” she said. “We want veterinarians to know what it looks like, what they should do if they see it, and help us identify when this is happening. It helps them serve their clients better and helps us get the word out.”

Sprague works to reach her audience in the best format for them, whether it’s planning webinars, writing brochures, or putting out press releases. In addition to her traditional communication roles, she also gets behind the camera often as a photographer and has been working to build the photo archive of agriculture across the state of Michigan.

Sprague graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and worked for the Michigan Pork Producers before joining MDARD three years ago. Working at AID has enabled her to use her communications skills to serve producers and animal owners in Michigan.

“Growing up on a dairy farm, I didn’t feel like I could leave agriculture. It’s something that’s in my blood. Even though I’m not on the farm anymore, I love that working at AID has enabled me to pursue my passion for agriculture and food production,” she said.

Sprague wants to help producers understand clearly what AID is going to do, how they’re going to do it, why it benefits producers, and how it protects their industry.

“I really want our communications to reflect that AID cares about what producers do, the animals they raise, and that we want to see them succeed as an industry in the state.”

Pesticide and Plant Pest Management Division

Plant Industry Field Scientist Amber Neils inspects nurseries in seven counties in Northern Michigan. Her work varies depending on the season, but mainly she inspects perennial plants, trees, shrubbery, and other plant products.

“We want to make sure the plants are pest free,” said Neils, who has studied Plant, Soil, and Microbial sciences at Michigan State University. “We don’t want retailers, landscapers or homeowners to move plant material with a pest that could spread.”

There are 20 nursery inspectors with MDARD that cover the whole state of Michigan. Like all nursery inspectors, Neils conducts annual inspections at nurseries and nursery dealers in her district. Nursery dealers are businesses that distribute plants – like Lowe’s, Walmart, etc.– but don’t grow them. She is also an Authorized Certification Official (ACO) for the USDA and inspects exports of all plant products from her district.

When Neils inspects a dealer, documents pertaining to the plants – especially if it was shipped from out of state – is required. If a firm is unable to find the paperwork, the selling of those plants could be restricted.

“We’re there to keep an eye on the process because if anything, by chance, goes wrong, we’re there to mitigate it and stop it before it gets bad,” she said.

One of the pests that Neils is on the lookout for is Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA) – an invasive, tiny insect that feeds on sap from hemlock trees. These insects can kill needles, shoots and branches, and over time, slows the growth of the trees and may result in the death of the tree within 4 to 10 years.

The concern is for the natural populations of Hemlock in Michigan becoming infested and losing that valuable ecosystem that is critical for many species of wildlife. Four counties in Michigan – Allegan, Ottawa, Muskegon, and Oceana – now have confirmed HWA infestations. Hemlock is prohibited from leaving those counties, as well as many other states.

“If Hemlock is coming from out of state, we have to make sure it’s shipping from an approved state and/or county and that it is free from HWA. If a business is getting a Hemlock from out of state, they need to pre-notify our department and an inspector needs to go out and check to make sure there are no signs of HWA before it’s allowed for sale.”

One common forest pest is Emerald Ash Borer, a beetle which feeds on ash species.

“Unfortunately, we have Emerald Ash Borer in almost every county in Michigan,” she said. “A lot of people have seen the effects of it on the ash trees on their own property. The larva gets under the bark, crawls around, and eats – girdling it so the plant dies because it can no longer transport water and absorb nutrients.”

To try and prevent the spread of Emerald Ash Borer and other forest pests that have not made their way to Michigan yet, like the Asian Long-horned Beetle, Neils urges people not to move firewood.

“It doesn’t take much to introduce pests to a new environment, and moving logs are a main way that it spreads,” she said. “People will bring firewood into the campgrounds, burn half of their bundle, and then leave the other half. The pests will come out and jump onto a fresh tree.”

Neils, who moved here from western New York because she wanted to study plant pathology in Michigan, said, “I have always loved being outside and have been interested in plants since I was pretty young. 

“During my undergraduate studies in Biology, I took a plant diversity class and it opened a new side to biology that was really interesting to me, so I decided to concentrate in plant-related sciences. There’s always emerging problems and always something new to learn.”

Neils said her favorite part of the job is knowing that she is helping to prevent plant pests from spreading.

“There’s a lot of stakeholders. We’re here to help growers, foresters, homeowners, the nursery industry as a whole, and all who enjoy Michigan’s natural beauty,” she said.